Grand Prize Silver Winner: Love in a Time of Abundance

March 2nd, 2020

By Amanda Castleman

Navigating grief with the Okavango Delta’s last generation of Bushmen hunter-gatherers.

When he was 15, Ditshebo “Dicks” Tsima took his spear into the bush. Hunting was still legal in Botswana’s Okavango Delta then, so he could follow an ancient coming-of-age tradition, practiced for around 200,000 years by his people: the Bushmen.

Most young men ran down giraffes, their lean muscles churning to pace the world’s tallest animals, which can cruise comfortably at 10 mph. Hour after hour, they pursued the lolloping giants through the mosaic landscape where Africa’s last wetland wilderness drains into the Kalahari Desert. Islands, scrub, and grasslands all flashed by: a fractal terrain of riverine lushness and heat-seared dust. “You chase them until they get exhausted and stand their ground,” Dicks explains. “Then you spear them. That’s the best way for a family to judge your worth. If you can chase down a giraffe, then your in-laws know you will take good care of your bride.”

Dicks wanted nothing more than to impress Lehutsana Mosweu and her parents. So he chose a riskier path: taking down a mother leopard guarding her cubs. “I could have considered less dangerous animals like steenboks and impalas,” he says. “But a brave warrior takes the spotted cat.”

Leopards often sit in the sausage trees, hiding among the fragrant flowers, so they can drop down on antelopes. But Dicks found one in the open, stalking a hare across the semi-arid savanna. He hid behind a termite mound and threw his spear. It missed … soaring right over her head. His second spear didn’t deter her either.

“Then the spotted cat was on me!” he says. “She jumped on my chest, with all of her claws hooked in. She was about to go for the throat and suffocate me.”

The leopard paused to adjust her grip and Dicks’ hunting dogs bit her. “I grabbed a spear and was running away. I thought I was sweating, but when I stopped I realized it was blood.”

His bravery and strength still impressed Lehutsana. They have been married for 16 years now.

“You had to get through these challenges before you could be a man,” Dicks says. “But it’s not a practice anymore because of the law and western culture.”

I find his survival story oddly comforting, as we sit stranded beside a pride of lions.


The big cats lounge, submerged in the thigh-high grass, snuffling and grooming beside the running board of our Land Cruiser. Flies buzz in their fur, which is marred by cuts, snagged by thorns, and smeared with the blood of other animals.

The lions drowse and yawn and resettle themselves, so close I can count their incisors, rose fading to an ivory hue at the fine, sharp tips. “Ooooohf,” they sigh, bathing each other. Their carrion breath eddies in the afternoon heat.

We can’t push-start the truck without tripping over them. And everyone here knows: stepping out of a vehicle means stepping into the food chain.

My friend Paul Joseph Brown twists on the bench seat. As a photographer, he’s covered wars, revolutions, famine, and genocide. He now focuses on poverty and health challenges throughout the developing world. Paul is no cream puff. But wild apex predators are straight-up snuggling with our tires. 

“Dude,” he whispers, his eyebrows climbing. “We are stuck beside lions.”

On the other hand, my nerves remain steady — numb, even.

Last year, my partner Doug and I were primary caregivers during two intense family deaths within a seven-month stretch. Each stripped away vanities and everyday worries like a thirsty elephant debarking a baobab trunk.

Grief, I realized, still has its claws hooked deep as Dicks’ leopard.

The air draws tight as an old drum skin. “The Great Thirstland” locals call it. The terrain attracts some of the world’s most endangered mammals, including lions, cheetahs, and the largest savanna elephant population. Not to mention African wild dogs, petite predators with Mickey Mouse ears and polka-dot coats who can hit speeds of 44 mph and bring down gazelles. It’s a small wonder UNESCO named the delta its 1,000th World Heritage Site.

The guides tinker with a sputtering radio, finally broadcasting an almost comical, “The lions are close. Please come out and help?”

Static crackles out of the speaker. Unintelligible.

We’d brought spare parts for the truck and communication system in from Maun. But in our excitement, we scrambled out for game drives without doing any maintenance, hoping to front-load the storytelling before more guests arrived. So now our group of five sits, sipping gin-and-tonics from Thermos lids, as dusk creeps over the plains and glittering waterways.


Humanity’s most ancient bloodline springs from this part of Africa, where hunter-gatherers have thrived since modern man emerged. As James Suzman, author of Affluence without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen, explained in an interview, “until about 20,000 years ago, they were unquestionably the most successful society on planet Earth. Somehow, they found a kind of balance between sustainability, their environment, hunting and gathering, and living that made them unbelievably enduring. They were there for an extraordinarily long time. That makes them unique.”

Their descendants followed in their footsteps until the late 1980s, when the Botswanan government forcibly resettled the Bushmen, later banning hunting entirely. But instead of letting their prowess fade into legend, the Bukakhwe tribe opened the first indigenous-owned safari camp in the country: Bushman Plains.

Dicks, who is one of the co-owners, says: “All these skills come from generation to generation to generation and now to me. I grew up sleeping in the bush with no cotton, no shoes, seeing only my family. I was around 10 when the government decided to educate Bushmen kids. They had to track us to take us to school.”

Lessons were taught in Setswana or English, and Dicks spoke neither. He kept leaving class to find his older brother, Ola, who eventually helped him trade his tanned-hide apron for more modern clothing.

“I took [a garment] out of the plastic and asked him, ‘what is this?’”

“This is underwear.”

“How do I do it? Can I put it up on my head?”

“There are three holes, one for your waist and two for your legs.”

“OK, fine,” Dicks says. “So I put on the underwear, then go out and call my friends, laughing: ‘look at this funny thing!’ I take it off and give it to the next guy. I don’t even know who was the last one to own it. It went in circles. This is how we wear clothing out. Nothing is more ideal.”

I try to fuse this mental image with the 41-year-old leader and visionary entrepreneur before me. Even on the dustiest game drives, Dicks always looks impeccable with his head shaved smooth and his crisply pressed khakis and button-down shirts. He speaks in the low, controlled tones of an expert tracker trying not to alarm animals. He has that intimidating British Empire pronunciation — unsurprisingly, as Botswana only achieved independence in 1966 and remains part of the Commonwealth. Still, it’s hard for a Yank like me to reconcile that accent with confusion about tighty-whities, however hilarious.

As the guffaws fade, Dicks guides us back to the heart of the matter with his usual grace. “Our traditional skills are getting smaller, they are at risk of dying. My children watch TV, my daughter plays computer games …”

The Bukakhwe hope the camp will preserve their ancient tracking and survival knowledge for their kids, but also for their guests. “At Bushman Plains, we are not putting on a show. We are sharing our culture openly with everyone who is interested to learn. Every human being has got a tiny nip of Africa in them.” He glances at my skin, made even more fish-belly pale by mineral sunscreen. “Even you.” Everyone cracks up again.

Dicks recovers first and continues: “It is everyone’s identity. When you come here on safari, you’re coming home.”


I appreciate the warm welcome. But it’s hard to untangle the idea of “home” from the hardships my family has faced there lately.

I can’t unhear Doug’s mother as a tumor strangled her spine: the cries of an animal in a saw-toothed trap, hurt crowding out every sense, even a sense of self. And part of me remains stuck in the E.R., where the man I called my brother woke up, clawing his skin and pleading to die after 17 years of crippling, chronic disease peaked. I swaddled his gaunt body in clean, hot blankets, crooning and rocking him, until he finally slept.

I retreated to the waiting room. “I can’t do this,” I told Doug at the time. “I’m not that grown up.”

“No one ever is,” he said, belting his arms around me. “But we still have to.”


I did it, of course, and we endured. Our world winnowed to one of singular purpose: making sure our loved ones were not left alone with their fear. Never had privilege mixed so closely with pain than in those stark, beautiful, heart-rending weeks. What I couldn’t fathom was how to come back — how to escape the leopard.


As it turns out, breaking down next to lions focuses the mind … at least for a Seattle city-slicker like me.

The big cats remain sacked out a few feet away. They look like grand, stoic statues outside a library, that is if library statues occasionally let loose great ripping farts, rank from a diet of game meat. Apparently, being “king of beasts” isn’t all about lithe, murderous grace.

Heat starts streaming from the desert, escaping into the cloudless night sky, and the temperature drops toward 50°F. American wildlife biologist Bill Given, the camp’s only non-Botswanan shareholder, catches my worried glance at the truck’s flannel-lined ponchos. “The Bushmen grew up in the cross-over generation, the last to hunt and forage,” he says. “They have mental maps of the land and know how to avoid dangerous animals. We could walk back safely, no problem, even in the dark. Or we could just sleep here—it’s all good!”

I hold still, listening to the predators breathe in the dark, curled tight beside us. Isn’t it worth one night of discomfort to lie down among lions? 

Then the distant grumble of a truck splits the savanna’s silence. The guides swing our spotlight around and signal. Finally the jeep pulls up, full of eager faces from one of the other three camps in the barely touristed area.

Oblivious to our plight, they announce, “Hey, we heard there were lions here!”

We point toward the grass and they’re treated to a glimpse of the hindmost cat’s rump, as the pride steals away to a more serene thicket.

The guides climb out and jumpstart our truck. Then we lurch into the black velvet night, tires clawing over rutted tracks, grass hummocks, and the occasional strand of barbed wire. We pull our feet high, as we ford the delta’s channels, water swamping the cab’s floor, then streaming away through drain holes.

My adrenaline does the same, leaving me alone with grief’s hollowness once again.


Western culture has long romanticized the people who thrived in the Great Thirstland. Take Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. After the furor of WWII, her industrialist father wanted to reconnect with his family and chose a singular avenue: searching for the Kalahari Desert Bushmen. They encountered the Juwa tribe after several months … and returned repeatedly, sometimes staying for entire years. Her mother trained as an anthropologist. So did her brother, who was also a documentary filmmaker and fierce political advocate for the Bushmen. Elizabeth studied English alongside Sylvia Plath at Smith College, then turned out the 1958 classic, The Harmless People — one of the bestselling anthropology titles of all time.

“Their culture insists that they share with each other,” she wrote, “and it has never happened that a Bushman failed to share objects, food, or water with other members of his band, for without very rigid cooperation Bushmen could not survive the famines and droughts that the Kalahari offers them.”

Yet Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, for all of her ethnographical care, fell prey to the era’s prevailing theory: that hunter-gatherers lived difficult, precarious lives. Eight more years would elapse before Richard Borshay Lee, who studied the Ju/’hoansi-!Kung Bushmen on the border of Botswana and Namibia, changed anthropology forever. His bombshell: hunter-gatherers only averaged 15 to 17 hours of work each week, even in one of the earth’s least hospitable environments.

Marshall Sahlins, then a University of Michigan professor, took things a step further. “The original affluent society was none other than the hunter’s — in which all the people’s material wants were easily satisfied,” he declared. “To accept that hunters are affluent is therefore to recognize that the present human condition of man slaving to bridge the gap between his unlimited wants and his insufficient means is a tragedy of modern times.” As the Summer of Love began in 1967, activists for peace and equality lionized this view of the Bushmen.

It would be easy now to do it again. But as the Information Age grows ever more frenetic, not even the Bushmen can revive the Old Way.

Their kids want WhatsApp, Fortnite, and modern conveniences — and why shouldn’t they?


Two days after the lion-side breakdown, six of us slip single file through the scrub near camp.

“We believe the gods help us … and they do,” says Motswasele “Diesel” Tshosa, the Bushman Plains guide leading the heritage walk.

We skirt a tower of giraffes as he elaborates: “When I wake, I have to let the gods — and my ancestors — know what activities I’m doing and ask for their strength. Often they reply through the woodpeckers.”

Diesel continues as we trek: “They have many calls. Some for regret.” He whistles once. “Shreeeeiii!”

Shrike-shrike-shrike signals ‘let’s go!’ Then there’s the laughter,” he pauses. “It resembles a person sharpening a knife and can mean ‘let’s hunt’ or ‘visitors are arriving.’”

“What does it sound like?” I ask.

On cue, a woodpecker replies from a nearby tree. “Tsa-tsa tsa-tsa!”

“That might be my grandfather!” Diesel exclaims.

What would it be like, I wonder, to feel my mother-in-law’s boundless love again, reflected in creatures of my Pacific Northwest home? To hear my brother’s shy bark of laughter in the “kwok” of a raven?

Would I be less angry about their fierce independence and mistrust of doctors, which made their deaths messier and more painful for us all? Would it be easier to forgive a year lost to hospitals, red tape, and the grim task of cleaning out their homes? Could I grieve the holes they left in our lives more cleanly if I felt them watching over us?
Raised agnostic, I have no framework to soften the sorrow. Only nature helps and I haven’t been getting outside enough.

The woodpecker whistles again. My eyes slip down to my notebook and take in my scrawl.

“Once for regret.”

I shiver and stride away.


That evening, the truck rattles towards camp, then detours into a nearby meadow. “Surprise!” Dicks announces. “Tonight we are cooking on the fire like the generations before us.”

Lehutsana and her team already have a blaze going, circled by logs and stumps for seating. They grill eland tenderloin, as a kudu stew simmers. Stars appear like eyes staring down from dark wilderness above. All 16 of us — staff and guests — draw tight around the flames. The scene is as old as time. At the day’s end, we gather to share our food, warmth, stories, and laughter.

What abundance could be greater than the freedom to care for each other?

The Gordian Knot in my chest, snarled tight since that first diagnosis 17 months ago, slackens a few degrees.

I realize that Doug and I never faltered in caring for those we love. If the woodpeckers sing of regret, it’s only for our loss.

For the first time, I put down some of the pain, letting it seep away like the Okavango River dissolving into the Great Thirstland.

The grief remains, of course … just as the Bukakhwe still mourn 200,000 years of the world’s most enduring and successful culture, changed forever in the span of Dicks’ Gen X childhood.

He was born an owner and guardian of this harsh terrain, hunting and gathering in a small family group, moving swiftly and lightly to let areas rejuvenate. The government tore all that away, turning the Bushmen into a marginalized minority in a rapidly changing modern state, subject to underpants and other tyrannies. Yet here he and his people are, back on their ancestral lands, remixing the Old Way and the new into something extraordinary. Not just a cultural seed bank, but a community — one with arms wide to welcome us all home, reaffirming our shared humanity and connection to nature.

To see them adapt gives me hope. For the first time, I start to imagine that a path out of my own fog might exist.


A voice cuts across my heavy thoughts. “Night drive! Let’s go see the lions again!” We pile back into the repaired Land Cruiser and careen across the delta. To my untutored eye, we move in a series of pivots and lunges like the wild leaps of a flea. But the guides unerringly take us to the last known location of the big cats, then begin tracking by spotlight at an incredible speed. It is like watching Frida Kahlo paint or Eddie Van Halen shred. I realize then that no one will ever come close to possessing the virtuoso survival skills of the last generation of hunters here in this extraordinary landscape.

Golden grass splits and bows before the truck’s bumper, as we thresh across the savanna. The effect is hypnotic and after a dawn start, a long day, and two beers, I doze lightly until we jerk to a stop beside a perfectly featureless wall of waist-high vegetation.

A sleepy grunt rumbles behind the veil. We roll forward slightly, mashing down more stalks, and suddenly I am face to face with a lioness.

We blink fully awake at the same time, focus sharpening. I raise my camera and her copper eyes drill right into mine through the viewfinder.

For a moment, I feel a deep connection to the Okavango and the people sharing its abundance. The Bukakhwe tribe’s brave new world is big enough for us all: the cats, the awestruck guests, and the children receiving the Bushmen legacy: humanity’s most ancient skills.

These people have escaped the suspended animation of pure grief. They have found a way through and so can I; for I have lain down with lions and found a measure of peace at last.
Writer and photographer Amanda Castleman lives on the traditional land of Seattle’s first people, the Duwamish. A Lowell Thomas Award winner, she has contributed to AFAR, Outside, Sierra, BBC Travel, Delta Sky, American Way, Robb Report, Scuba Diving, Bon Appétit, Coastal Living and The New York Times. She has also worked on 30-odd books, including titles for Frommer’s and National Geographic. A longtime instructor, Amanda recently founded Write Like a Honey Badger, an online school offering scholarships to POC, non-binary and LGBTQIA authors.

Almost Blond in Nepal

May 6th, 2019

By Nancy Bartley

Funny Travel Story Gold Winner in the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards

I never asked to look like a female wrestler. You know the blondes in bikinis who toss each other around the ring or wallow wantonly through mud. But then again, maybe my problem simply was a matter of hair color – streaks of blond highlights in my brown hair, hair-coloring that marked me as distinctively western from my bangs to my trekking pants.

I was in disbelief when one of the men gathered around the television at my hotel first mistook me for a pro wrestler. I’m a writer, not a wrestler, I protested. I was in Nepal, going to Mount Everest Base Camp to do a book on an American mountain climber who had two-minutes of fame for the heroic rescue of a climber left for dead. But the trouble began long before I boarded the Twin Otter for Lukla and the remote regions of Nepal. It began in Thamel, the tourist section of Kathmandu where trekkers and climbers buy outdoor gear at good prices. I was minutes from the hotel when a young man began to follow closely behind me. As I would learn, he had a great fascination with my hair.

Anthropologists say we are genetically programmed to see hair as a sign of fertility, and apparently he was no exception. Consider the fairy tale Rapunzel, her hero climbs her golden tresses to win her. And in the biblical story of Sampson, he lost his power when sneaky Delilah cut his hair. Both stories are examples of the human fascination for the mop on top. Add the televised image of half-naked female wrestlers and some primitive force of nature is released. Whether or not the young man following me was also a wrestling fan, I don’t know. I just knew it was becoming frightening to have him walk behind me, stroking my head like it was a lucky charm.

“Your hair,” he said. “Blond!”

“Go away!” I told him. I walked faster. He picked up the pace. “I like YOUR HAIR, I want to talk to you.”

“NO,” I shouted. “No!”

We continued down the street this way, his paws on my hair and me trying to escape his advances. In desperation I darted into a store and the shop keeper saw what was going on and ordered him away. When I emerged a few minutes later, Hairman was waiting. I continued through the crowded streets. As I tried to avoid being run over by mopeds, bicycle rickshaws and the occasional taxi, I begged Hairman to leave me alone and quit touching my hair. He persisted. I shouted, “Back off!’’ But when he was still not deterred, and I’d had half an hour or more of hair stroking, I stopped. As I expected, he collided against me. That’s when I cocked my arm and slugged him in the nose.

He screamed. He spouted curses. Only then did I see a police officer. That’s when I fled into a store and out the backdoor, down a street and quickly jumped into a bicycle rickshaw without first asking the price.

“Take me to my hotel!” I shouted, showing the driver the business card and pointing a short distance away. He took off pedaling in the wrong direction.

“Wrong way!” I cried. “You’re going the wrong way!”

“Want to see Monkey Temple?” he asked. I was afraid to jump out, not knowing if Hairman was about to avenge the state of his nose. Rickshaw Man stopped to ask for directions several times – a bad sign – and quickly we were lost and ended up at Kathmandu’s rush hour in a traffic circle filled with vegetable sellers, sleeping dogs, children, bonfires, herds of mopeds, cars and other rickshaws all milling about and honking like geese with bad sinuses. Gray, noxious exhaust blanketed everything. I looked around to see what the hold up was. That’s when a large black cow – not a nice country cow with daisy crowns but an urban sacred cow prone to sleeping on the highway median — ambled over and stuck her head in my lap. Time and traffic stood still as the cow chewed her cud and gave the look that let me know she too believed she had seen me in TV’s wrestling ring. Just then a woman who had been roasting corn over a bonfire built in the middle of traffic, threaded her way through the masses of metal and swatted the cow with a plastic bag. Bossie lurched half into the rickshaw, but at last retreated and moved along. The gridlock melted away with her departure and in minutes I was in front of my hotel. Just in time for the rickshaw driver to ask for “$20 American.’’ For my unwanted tour, I gave him $2, armed with the knowledge that I had just punched one man in the nose and could do it again.

With that introduction to the streets of Nepal, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the living conditions for women were deplorable. According to Human Rights Watch Nepal has the third highest rate of child marriage in Asia with 37 percent of girls marrying before 18; the practice of chaupadi, where menstruating women and girls are forced to live in crude sheds open to the elements, snakes and animals, still is practiced, despite the passage of a law criminalizing it. Nepal is one of only three countries in the world where men outlive women; the rate of maternal death during childbirth remains high as does the number of women who are abused. Women receive less education and are less literate than men, according to UNICEF and overall, there is a “feminization of poverty.” According to a 2018 study by the country’s government, the out of proportion percentage of women in poverty is due to unequal access to health care, opportunities, education and the paternal culture.

The country does have its female superstars even in the masculine world of mountain climbing and I met one, Pemba Doma Sherpa, who lived in a bright pink stucco house in a quiet Kathmandu neighborhood. She invited me to lunch and I saw the photo she proudly displayed on her dining room wall. In it she stood in native Sherpa dress next to King Birendra who was congratulating her for being the first Nepalese woman to climb the North Face of Mount Everest. Pemba had not let patriarchy stop her, even though her culture mandated her primary concern was to take care of her family, not climb mountains or guide foreign climbers. Several weeks after I met her, she fell to her death on Lhotse, a mountain adjacent to Everest and part of the Everest massif. She left behind a husband, a daughter and her legend.

When I arrived in this traditional culture with its rigid restrictions for women, I took western freedom of movement and self-determination for granted. In Nepal, men have all the freedom and the fun. Unless they are among the rare group of female mountain climbers and sherpas, Nepalese women wear traditional attire, saris in the city or for Sherpas, floor-length robes over pants of yak wool. Public displays of affection of any kind between men and women are forbidden. Yet it is far from being a puritanical society. The ancient Nepalese temples are festooned with every kind of erotic carving possible – even elephants doing things that elephants are not likely to do.

“There are 173 erotic carvings. Do you want to see them?” asked the bodyguard/ tour guide I hired. I glanced at the carving a bit too long, marveling at the gymnastics of those early pachyderms.

“Nepalese women don’t look,” he added.

An American climber suggested I avoid eye contact with Nepalese men and cast my eyes down as I walked. For someone wanting to see and experience the culture as it unfolded before me, it was not a pleasant thought to look only at my shoes. So my troubles continued, as I stubbornly insisted on being an independent western woman in a patriarchal culture. I requested a massage from the hotel health club. I was surprised when a white-smocked male arrived but at home I would not have hesitated to use his services. And this one unknotted tight muscles in my back. But as soon as I was lulled into a stupor he leaped onto the table, grabbed me by the ankles and pulled me upside down into the air. The move could have been called “pulled up carrot.” The sheet fell away and I dangled by my ankles. What had gone so wrong in communication? After he put me down, he stood back, gawked and muttered, “Beautiful, beautiful.”

New Year’s in Nepal falls in spring and the ancient ruins of Durbar Square was filled with people appearing to be taking their goats on shopping trips. There were goats on the roofs of buses, and goats tied near museums and outside stores. The goats – and in some cases yaks, chickens or other fowl, were on tap to be sacrificed on New Year’s to appease Hindu gods. And amidst the chaos, bells rang and incense burned and there were garlands of gold flowers. Like New Year’s Eve everywhere, Kathmandu rocked with celebration. My bodyguard/guide offered to show me the New Year’s Eve scene in Thamel. Soon we too were rushing through the crowded streets on a motorcycle roaring into an alley. Then we clambered up the back stairs to a cafe where only locals go. The folk music beat a steady tattoo and the men danced with men ONLY.

At midnight – the Nepalese men ran around and popped balloons and found other men to kiss and then everyone dashed out into the street to engage in their favorite game: traffic combat. Especially on New Year’s Eve, if you do not like the lane you’re in, you can make up your own. When you come head to head with an oncoming vehicle or cow – just honk. The one who honks the longest wins. The next day I was on my way to Base Camp, climbing into the small Twin Otter headed for Lukla, one of the most dangerous airports in the world. As we dipped suddenly out of the clouds and bore down upon an impossibly tiny runway, the pilot shouted, “Shit!”

We passengers looked at each other in shock but before we could say, “Hail Mary,” we were on the ground, taxiing toward a rock cliff, then making a sharp right near the hangar. After that hair-raising experience, nothing else could go wrong.

Several nights in tea houses, gathered around dung fires for warmth at Phakding, and I was climbing a steep and winding 2,727 feet in 4.7 miles to Namche Bazaar at 11,290 feet above sea level. When I arrived in the town where traders from Nepal and Tibet had gathered for hundreds of years, I was already very far away from cash machines, paved roads and easy communication access. That’s when my money was stolen from my backpack. One climber insisted I report it to the Namche Bazaar Police, telling me by doing so I might be re-compensated through my travelers insurance.

Clipping along with my trekking poles, I climbed the stairs to a squat stucco building parked next to an immense satellite dish. Goats and a yak grazed nearby. The furry tip of yak tails, used to make warm wool, hung on a clothesline and inside the police department one officer was boiling more tails and hanging them out to dry. A Bollywood soap opera babbled on a small TV set inside the station. Seeing me, one officer came out and then others poured in from the nearby hills. Finally, the entire police force of Namche Bazaar, about 10 officers who served the largest and final outpost for those climbing Everest, arrived and brought me a cup of tea. They all gathered around to hear me tell of the crime. We sat in white plastic chairs in a circle outside the station. The police inspector arrived and sat next to me. Where did the theft occur? How much money did I lose? Who took my money? What was the number on the missing credit card? Was I married? Did I like Nepal? Could I speak Nepali?

I was told to come back the next day. I did and once again, the police force gathered around me, someone brought me tea, and the questions began again: Where did the crime occur? Where was my son, brother, father, husband? Why was I not married? Why was I making this trip unaccompanied by a male relative? When did I plan to be married? Then the police inspector told me, “Come back tomorrow.” For four days I visited the station, answered questions that became increasingly personal. “How many children do you want?” the police inspector asked. I was sitting in a plastic chair surrounded by the police force when the leader of the goat pack, a large billy with curving horns and a white goatee, approached. He stood by my knees and gazed knowingly into my eyes. I think I had met him before on “Do you like goats?” the inspector asked.

“Sure,” I nervously answered. Again, someone brought me tea. Then came a request that I have my photo taken with the group. They stood on either side of me. The officer with the one lone rifle flexed his muscles in a Rambo-esque pose. I had been on the trail for 10 days, 10 days of sleeping in tea houses and tents, 10 days without washing my “almost blond” hair or without taking more than a bath out of a basin of water. I gritted my teeth in a mock grin as the camera zeroed in at the group. Finally, someone handed me something that appeared to be a police report, or a shopping list, or a page from a trashy novel. I didn’t know. It was entirely in Hindi.

“Come back tomorrow,” the police inspector said. “We’ll discuss marriage.” Report in hand, I trotted as fast as I could down the stone steps toward town. Then, I heard the clatter of feet behind me. My heart froze. I looked back. A whole new group of wrestling fans – the billygoat and his harem – were in hot pursuit.

Nancy Bartley is a multi-award-winning writer from Seattle who has shares in two Pulitzer Prizes for Breaking News as part of Seattle Times teams. She is a Fulbright Scholar and taught in Bulgaria and Colombia. Her first book, The Boy Who Shot the Sheriff, was short-listed for the Washington State Book Award in history. She is a frequent public speaker on her research. She’s also a prize-winning script writer and a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington.

Nuns on a Train

April 29th, 2019

By Ashley Seashore

Doing Good or the Kindness of Strangers Gold Winner in the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards

Half of my money is in my right shoe. My passport is in my left. The other half of my money is in an envelope in my underwear, and my credit cards, family photos, and one traveler’s check are in a flimsy pouch slung around my neck and hidden beneath my clothes. I have arrived in Rome in the dead of night at the wrong train station and I’m certain that the only reason I’ve been unmolested so far is thanks to the grace of a small crew of Sicilian nuns who have now left me.

Stazione Sant-Oreste is dark and empty. The shops and ticket counters are closed; the people are gone. There are too many shadows and echoes. I wait nervously as furrow-browed station patrolman Pierre-Luis takes my measure. Will he fulfill his promise to the nuns to look after me? Or will he do what I can see he wants to do, which is abandon me to whatever awaits me in the night? After all, he only made the promise so the nuns would stop yelling at him and poking him in the chest with their godly, determined fingers.

I didn’t recognize the ferocity of the holy women when I first encountered them in a train compartment in Torino. I was tired from over twenty hours of buses and trains already, and crestfallen because I had just learned that I’d been relying on the wrong timetable to get me to my final destination. Mine was a mere week old, but it was the wrong season. The train I needed didn’t exist again until the next winter. And that was only half the problem. When I realized my mistake, I found a payphone and used the last of my calling card to reach the hostel I’d booked in Rome, hoping they would take a message for a friend I was meeting there. My friend, however, had not shown up that day so they canceled our reservations. I had nowhere to stay.

But the only train to the Eternal City was about to depart, so I rushed through the station with my giant backpack bouncing up and down, and jammed my arm into the train door as it was closing. Squeezing myself and my giant nylon shell into the narrow corridor, an irritated conductor mumbled to me in Italian, checked my Europass, and jabbed his thumb toward the sleeping compartments. The ride would be long and slow, and I hoped for a nap to gird myself for whatever was coming next.

The first compartment I peeked into had a family with small children, already kicking the benches and pressing their squishy, food-smeared faces against the glass. In another was a single man. No thanks. I’d heard too many traveler legends about solo women on Italian trains with strange men.

Finally, I clicked open the flimsy door of the last compartment and there they were – three benevolent sisters, beaming up at me. “Come in, come in,” they beckoned, as if they’d been there waiting all along. There was one empty seat by the window.

The compartment was stuffy and small. I shoved my backpack onto the overhead shelf and went to my seat, trying to move delicately so I didn’t disturb the women’s calf-length gray skirts. I’d never been around nuns before and didn’t know how to behave. Should I be deferential? Fake some piety? Treat them like anyone else? Perhaps they would reject me when they learned I wasn’t Catholic – or allied with any religion, really. Or, worse, they’d use the hours-long train ride to proselytize, having pinned me into the seat furthest from the door. So many questions, but they put me at ease as soon as I sat down.

Sister Arnotta spoke English. The others nodded and smiled as she translated. She showed me a beautiful prayer card with the sacred heart on the front and a watercolor of their quaint convent on the back. She asked if I was Catholic. When I mumbled that I hadn’t been raised under any church, she smiled with benevolent pity and waved her hand. “No matter,” she said.

The nuns wanted to know more about me. Where I was from, where I was going, why was I alone? And, finally, why did I look so sad?

I tried to explain in the simplest terms for the sake of translation. “I’m arriving in Rome at the wrong station and the wrong time, and I don’t have a place to stay,” I told her.

Her Italian version properly conveyed the tragedy of my situation, and the other nuns clucked with sympathy and conferred amongst themselves. After a moment, Sister Arnotta declared, “We will help you.”
“Grazie,” I said gratefully. It was one of only a handful of Italian words I knew, but they were delighted.

We chatted more, Sister Arnotta unflagging in her attempts to understand me and translate to her sisters, but I was growing tired. And I was hungry. I brought out some bread and cheese that I’d been nibbling on since I left England and they offered me a simple, sweet baked roll. Their kindness seemed boundless.

Bread and conversation spent, I settled in and relaxed enough to sleep, grateful and content that my belongings were safe and so was my person. I wallowed in my predicament just a tad, wondering where my friend had gone instead of meeting me at the hostel and feeling distraught that my time in Rome might end up being quite lonely. But at the moment I was surrounded by lovely nuns. Surely things would be all right.

~ ~ ~

At one o’clock in the morning, we pulled into Oreste. The small cavalcade of nuns, led by Sister Arnotta, escorted me off the train. They yelled at anyone who didn’t get out of our way, rapped strangers on shoulders to hurry them up, punctuated their Italian with sharp hand gestures, and cleared the way so I could step down from the train like I was carrying the Infant Baby Jesus in my arms.

Amid the bustle of travelers, they wrangled the first polizia they saw, the young, chubby-cheeked Pierre-Luis, and sweetly beseeched him for help on my behalf, cooing and smiling as they presented me to him.

“No,” he replied, shaking his head and taking a step back. “No, no, no.”

How bedraggled could I possibly look? I thought. Was I too pathetic to merit sympathy?

But the sisters wouldn’t have a refusal from him. They yelled, they poked, they invoked things. Finally, he relented. Then they blessed me, invited me to their convent in Sicily, and whirled away in a flurry of gray wool and black shoes.

~ ~ ~

And now here I was, nun-less, be-backpacked, and bedraggled in an empty station with my fate in the hands of Pierre-Luis. At last he sighed and motioned for me to follow him.

Pierre-Luis led me along the platform to the police office, illuminated by a single, low-wattage bulb next to the door. It was a box of a room painted in bland yellow with economical steel desks and chairs that must have been there since Mussolini’s time. We were the only two in the place. On the desk was a phone. Pierre-Luis planted a chair right next to it. In the international language of abrupt gestures, he was very clearly saying, “I don’t want you here so let’s get this over with quickly.”

After twenty minutes, I’d combed through every hostel I could afford in my Let’s Go: Europe (1995 edition) and had zero prospects. Displeased but resigned, Pierre-Luis pointed to a long, hard wooden bench slammed against a mustard yellow wall. Again, the international language of abrupt gestures: I was to go over there and be quiet and possibly disappear if at all possible. Got it. I’d be happy to.

And I did. Until Pierre-Luis’s commanding officer came in, stopped in his tracks, and began yelling at Pierre-Luis. I wanted to defend the poor officer because I suddenly viewed him as my friend if not my lifeline, but I kept my mouth shut, even when two other officers came in and stared at me. The yelling crescendoed. I wished the wall behind me was actual mustard so I could just melt right into it.

After several heated moments, someone roughly shook my leg. “We are leaving,” one of the new officers told me.

“Where are you going?” I asked, sitting up. “Can I stay here?”

He shook his head. “You must go.” They hustled me out, backpack and all, locked the door, and jumped in a truck parked out front. They zoomed away and didn’t even glance back at me. Jerks.

But the joke was on them. Little did they know that there was absolutely nowhere in this dark, deserted, freak-me-out quiet station that I would rather be than camped out right there in front of the police office. At least they’d find my body quickly if something horrific happened.

So I stayed put. I plopped my backpack down on the cold concrete right next to the locked door and perched myself on top of it. There was a single lamp above me, trapped in a metal cage, that shone feebly in the darkness. I got out my journal, wrote ad nauseum about a boy problem I was having, and waited. The nuns had been saving graces, quite literally, and I only had a couple more hours until blessed sunrise when I hoped the city would wake up and the trains would start running again so I could high-tail it the hell out of Oreste.

The minutes crawled by. My hand grew tired from recounting the agony of a love-gone-wrong trip to Scotland. I heard the rumble of a vehicle and perked my head up. Headlights were coming towards me. I braced myself, took count of which shoe had my passport and which had my money, and was ready to run or fight depending on who was in the car.

But, as luck would have it, I am more stubborn than a squad of Italian polizia. The boys had returned. Grumbling, they ignored me as they got out of the truck and unlocked the office door, but they were quiet. Resigned, even. I knew I’d won. Sure enough, after a couple of minutes, the English-speaking officer, who later I’d learn was named Alex, emerged from the office and invited me in.

~ ~ ~

We passed the waning hours of the night companionably enough. They tried to teach me Italian, asked me questions about where I’m from in California, and gave me suggestions about where to go in Rome. Just before daybreak, an off-duty officer showed up dressed like he’d just come from a club. Tight black pants, fitted button-up, shiny, pointed shoes. He conferred with the officers for a moment, then turned to me.

“Would you like me to take you to the metro? The trains have started running.”

“Yes, please,” I said gratefully. I said ciao to the men who’d helped me because I didn’t give them a choice and followed my new savior out of the office.

“So,” the man in the shiny shoes said cheerfully. “We go to the trains. But first, coffee, yes?”

My new savior, indeed.

Ashley Seashore is a native Californian and reformed Valley Girl. Her work has appeared in Porthole, Fast Company, and She is the author of St. Justine & the Voms, a post-apocalyptic adventure romance set in the California wine country with heaps of vampire-zombies.

Strangers in the Bush

April 22nd, 2019

By Susan Bloch

Destination Story Gold Winner in the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards

I’m traveling into unknown territory with a man I just met.

His name is Karl, my safari guide here in Namibia, and we’re driving along a coast shaped by death and diamonds. A coast where shifting sand dunes bury secrets, mysteries, and skeletons; where for centuries, Atlantic waves smashed sails, masts, gunwales, and rudders, against treacherous rocks; where secrets drowned and secrets were lost at sea; where secrets skulk in rusted ships’ keels and hulls and lie camouflaged inside the bleached whale ribcages littering the beaches. The secrets of what shipwrecked sailors did to survive the torture of thirst, hunger, and exposure; secrets shared between sailors and prostitutes about buried treasure; and in the late 1930s, how Germany’s secret plan to recapture Southern Africa was smuggled to Nazi sympathizers in the region. These tales had captivated me for decades. But no secret was ever so carefully guarded as that by Karl—his family scandal. The secret I didn’t know when the two of us trekked alone into the bush.

At dawn that morning, Karl picked me up at Walvis Bay International Airport. When he met me at the terminal exit, he stared at my purple roller suitcase just long enough for me to notice his lips press together. He wiped the palm of his right hand on the back of his crumpled khaki shorts and with his left, stroked the trim beard framing his suntanned face. With the build of a rugby player, each of his thighs was as big as both of mine together, and he towered over my petite five-foot-four frame. When he leaned over to pick up my luggage, his blond curls flopped over his frown and a hunting knife attached to his leather belt came into view.

“So glad to finally meet you,” he said. “How was your flight?”

“Fine, thank you, but long. Seattle is a long way from anywhere.”

“We have a little farther to go, and then you can chill. Okay?”

Next to the unpaved curb, Karl unlocked his SUV and opened the passenger door, and I stepped up to get into the passenger seat. My foot slipped on the side bar and I stumbled back onto the paving.

“Here, hold onto this handle and go up with your right foot first, not your left,” Karl said.

Then he leaned forward, pressed his palms on my back to stop my wobbling, and I plopped down inside, next to the gear box. While Karl tossed my bag in the back, I turned around looking for our travel companions, but instead saw only two sleeping bags covered in plastic sheeting, occupying the empty seats behind us.
“When do the rest of the group join us?” I asked before he closed door.

“Just you and me this time,” Karl said. “You’re the first woman to do a trip like this with me.”

I smiled to mask my nervousness but couldn’t speak. We both knew this was not the trip I signed up for. Karl had been quite clear in our pre-trip emails: a group of four people minimum—including a few experienced wildlife campers—along with Karl’s two Rhodesian Ridgebacks and a couple of .375 caliber Magnum rifles. Karl had assured me we’d be well protected against attacks by desert lions, hyenas, and elephants. While Karl walked around to the driver’s door, my mind raced ahead imagining the worst. If Karl had a heart attack, was gored by a desert elephant tusk, or was bitten by a black mamba, we’d be doomed. I’d never fired a rifle nor a gun of any sort, driven a vehicle with six gears, or used a compass.

For centuries, women have hiked across Southern Africa under the tutelage of seasoned guides and I wasn’t breaking new ground. But I was a rookie wildlife camper who’d only traveled in luxury organized groups. It was crazy for just the two of us to drive off into the veldt on our own. After the thirty-hour flight, my head felt heavy and I was tempted to call off the trip. Instead, I sighed, too tired to make any sensible decisions. I’d spent six months planning this trip and hoped that being close to nature would help me recover from my husband’s death. I longed to feel John’s hand over mine; longed to hear him tell me what to do; longed to hear him whisper, “You’ll be fine.” The logical thing, he’d probably tell me, would be to go back to the city and join another group. After all, this was the first trip ever I’d taken without him. This compounded my dilemma. For almost two years, I argued with myself, I’d tried, unsuccessfully, to throw off my widow’s shroud. I’d come this far and felt reluctant to give up now.

If Karl sensed my quandary about being with him on my own, he didn’t show it. Whistling, he climbed into the driver’s seat of the six-seater safari jeep, turned the key in the ignition, and put the vehicle in gear. The back of our 4×4 was loaded with a plastic jerry can filled with drinking water; a blackened frying pan; a dented kettle with a scorched underside; potatoes; onions; butternut squash; a pack of matches; an all-in-one can and bottle opener; a chiller crammed with boerewors (South African sausage) and lamb chops; and a wooden box packed with other necessities: sliced bread, boxes of UHT milk, tea, coffee, sugar, pasta, canned beans, a bottle of canola oil, and a case of Lion lager. A rifle lay on top of my pup tent but we had no GPS and nothing to prevent the venom of cobra or puff adder from killing us.

“Each snake requires its own antivenom, which has to be refrigerated,” Karl revealed when I admitted my off-the-chart snake phobia. “The only thing we can do is drive like hell to the nearest clinic and hope they have the antidote.” He chuckled and rubbed a muscular forearm across his forehead. “Never happened yet in all these years I’ve been a guide. It’s unusual to get a request to camp and hike in this area, and I’m looking forward to trying this out with you.” Karl tapped his thumbs on the steering wheel.

He looked at me from the driver’s seat. His green eyes and freckled cheeks faced me full on with calmness and composure. “First, we need to get you a pair of kudu-skin, veldskoen hiking boots like mine.” Karl picked up one foot and showed me the barely worn thick-ridged sole underneath. “These have covered thousands of kilometers and are still going strong. You won’t get far in those white sneakers.”

I raised my hand and covered my mouth. I was glad Karl didn’t know I had hair mousse and a hairdryer at the bottom of my suitcase.

“Then, we drive north along these beaches. In a few days, we’ll turn east to camp and hike across the veldt to climb kopjes, for the rock paintings way off the tourist track that you want to see.”

I tried to block out my friends’ warnings about this trip. They’d told me I should opt for a more conventional safari, where tourists drive around in air-conditioned minivans, sleep in luxury rondavels—huts with en-suite bathrooms—and enjoy gourmet meals in the camp restaurant, all under the eyes of watchful rangers. Maybe I should’ve listened, but I felt the need to track game on foot through the bush and view remote rock art far away from tour groups. Twisting my wedding ring around and around, I wondered how camping in a scarcely populated country filled with snakes and silence—stretching three hundred miles between the Hoanib River in the north to the Ugab River in the south and framed by quicksand and marshlands in Kaokoland to the east—could possibly be a cure for my grief. Surely, the healing power of nature and time away from work would be that catalyst. But perhaps it wasn’t quite enough. I needed to be shaken out of my comfort zone. The impulse to heal urged me to take a step toward my new protectors: Karl, a campfire, the Southern Cross, and luck. If I am to go back into the world, surely now is the time, and this is the place.

At the outskirts of Walvis Bay, we stopped at a shoe store, filled with the familiar smell of new leather, where under Karl’s guidance I bought my veldskoen hiking boots. The kudu skin fit snuggly around my ankles and the thick crepe soles cushioned my feet. It’d been ages since someone helped me choose new shoes, and I smiled, my first authentic smile since landing. I strode back to the jeep and this time, there was no need for Karl to push me up. An unfamiliar sense of recklessness overwhelmed me and with the abandon of a carefree teenager, I plonked my new tan veldskoen on the dashboard.

Our journey begins here—tapped under a dense fog created by the clash of the icy Atlantic Ocean on our left and the broiling Namib Desert on our right, where visibility is negligible. The Skeleton Coast—an apt name for this shoreline filled with tales of ancient demons and modern disasters. Karl shifts gears when we scrape over scrub and bounce through potholes but doesn’t slow down.

“Even nowadays,” Karl says, noting my frown, “fishing boats and stupid surfers vanish in the fog and sand. We still sometimes find a human skull or thigh bones. Some centuries old, some more recent.”
Twenty-foot waves smash on the white beaches and spray flies into the air. Drops dribble down Karl’s side window as we drive on. An involuntary shiver travels up my spine.

“The San, you know,” Karl continues, “are the longest surviving hunter-gatherer society and they’ve lived here for over 70,000 years. They call this place The Land God Made in Anger. Hard to believe that in 1487, they chased the crew of the São Cristóvão, captained by the Portuguese explorer, Bartolomeu Dias, back to their caravel only with arrows.”

“Unbelievable. Against all those cannons and rifles.” I shift my spine against the back of my seat and my hunched shoulders fall away from my ears.

“But let me tell you, this didn’t stop other European explorers from trying to exploit the region, even though they were terrified of being stranded here. They called this coast The Gates of Hell.”

We drive past, I remember reading how, despite all the horror stories, German explorers, seduced by the lure of diamond fortunes, colonized the territory in 1884. How Namibia changed hands when, after the First World War, the League of Nations handed Namibia over to South Africa to govern. These new rulers not only imposed apartheid practices but also siphoned off the country’s rich mineral wealth—uranium, vanadium, lithium, and tungsten, as well as diamonds. Finally, in 1990, after seventy-five years of foreign rule, Namibia gained independence. Now the Skeleton Coast is home to a few vacation fishing villages, deserted diamond mines, and three coastal cities—Walvis Bay, Swakopmund, and Luderitz, which thrive on tourism and a vibrant fishing industry.

Karl squirts the jeep’s washer fluid and turns on the wipers to clear the brown mush—a batter of moisture and dust—streaking the windscreen We drive past the barbed wire fencing that straddles Kolmanskop, once a thriving diamond-mining center—the site of drunken brawls, a hidden diamond, sex in a shack with someone else’s wife, and tormented love across the racial divide. No roads or paths lead up to this ghost town and yet derelict trucks lie parked outside roofless, deserted buildings.

Wind whips up the sand, which blows through tiny cracks in the closed car windows.

From behind a shed, a terrified herd of springbok rush out and leap over the jeep’s hood, their hooves kicking up thick clouds of fine desert sand. Upon landing, they immediately jump up again and then again—their bodies curved, legs stiff, backs arched.

“You know,” Karl says, “they can leap twelve or thirteen feet—we call it pronking. Amazing animals.”

“And so beautiful, with that brown strip on their white faces. I love those big brown eyes.”

Just then, my own eyes begin water and I worry I’ve smudged my mascara. Already, my cheeks feel like paper; by the time this trip is over my skin will be dried out and I’ll look fifteen years older. Twisting around in my seat to look for my sunscreen and a bandana to tie over my nose, I notice a red first-aid kit the size of my iPad. Inside I see a packet of Band-Aids, a gauze bandage, bottle of Dettol antiseptic, a tube of antihistamine cream, and a jar of Vaseline. I’m glad I brought along a tube of antibiotic cream. Only when I rub the sun lotion into my chin do I realize my jaw is clenched tight.

An hour later, we stop in a semi-desert region near Wlotzkasbaken, a small fishing village. When I open the door, I scan the area for scorpions, snake holes, and black widow spiders. Only when I see no signs of movement do I step on the ground.

Karl stands waiting, his arms folded. Then he beckons.

“See these fields of lichens and fungi? There are over a hundred different kinds,” Karl points out. “They’re a mix between a fungus and algae, and this is the only part of the world they grow.” He leans down, picks a small piece of an apricot-colored, lace-like plant covering the rocks, and squeezes a sticky liquid onto my palm.

“Gorgeous,” Karl says. “It smells like fresh strawberries.”

He takes in a deep breath and closes his eyes, but I’m still in turmoil and struggling to enter his world. I sniff the liquid on my palm, but all I can smell is my own two-day-old perspiration.

“The plant absorbs water from the fog and turns this dark color. Springboks eat it for nutrition and drinking water, otherwise they’d not be able to survive here. These plants have been around for thousands of years and are now a protected species.”

Next, Karl points out a flat plant stretching almost four feet in diameter called Welwitschia; the crown is woody and dark brown resembling an elephant’s inverted foot.

“Feel its leaves,” he says. I stroke the unexpectedly smooth, rubbery surface. “This relic from the Jurassic period can live as long as fifteen hundred years. If weather or an animal’s hooves damage the leaves, it heals itself and lives on. The long roots suck up any moisture and stop soil erosion.” Karl puts his hands under the foliage, “Come and feel how cool it is underneath.”

But I step back and clasp my hands behind my back, scared I’ll get bitten or stung. Karl frowns but then his eyes soften.

“It’s okay to be cautious, but you can trust me. Come see the marks on the stones here,” Karl says, his voice animated. “A jackal has just licked off the moisture. Here is his spoor.”

Squatting next to Karl, I struggle to see the animal’s footprints in the sand but follow his index finger to focus on a desert beetle using its bumpy shell to extract water from fog-laden winds. A precious drop of liquid rolls slowly along a ridge of its protective casing into the insect’s mouth. And then another and another. Hypnotized by its determination to survive, I stretch forward to watch how long the bug will persevere. What must be a half-hour later, Karl taps me on the shoulder, takes my elbow, and helps me stand.

“We need to move on so that we’re settled before it gets dark.”

That first night, we camp on a flat stretch of firm sand near Henjies Bay, one of the few small vacation fishing villages in the area. Karl helps me set up my pup tent and rolls his sleeping bag out in the open a few yards from mine. We build a camp fire, drink a couple of beers, cook lamb chops and whole onions, and nestle potatoes in the coals. We do the dishes—he washes and I dry—and I excuse myself to find a bathroom behind a bush, brush my teeth, and finally, snuggle into my sleeping bag in the tent.

After that, each evening follows a typical pattern. As dusk settles, Karl looks for a safe spot to camp, racing over boulders as if he were on a tarred highway. Then we find a flat sandy area with no lion tracks, elephant poop, or snake holes. Soon, flames rise from crackling acacia logs; a lemony-scented resin oozes from them. Sparks shoot into the onyx sky adorned with a pale crescent moon that turns over the month into a bright full moon. The African cuckoos stop their regular knocking, and the bulbuls stop warbling. Stars cluster around us, and we look for shooting stars in the clear night sky. Aromas of grilled boerewors with roasted onions, garlic, pumpkin, and cabbage, seasoned with peri-peri, a local chili powder, fill the air. I expected baked beans and cans of Campbell’s soup, but every dinner is an olfactory and culinary nirvana. It has been years since anyone cooked for me. I sink into my canvas camping chair as if I were floating on the Milky Way.

Before turning in, I fill a small plastic bowl with soapy water, scan the landscape for creepy crawlies, and step behind a nearby rock to wash away the dust from my own nooks and crannies. After a final cup of rooibos tea at the campfire, I crawl into my tent and zip the door, reluctantly locking out the Southern Cross, Taurus, Jupiter, Leo, and Orion’s Belt but glad to know aardwolves, civets, and porcupines would have to chomp through the metal zipper to get inside. Karl unrolls his sleeping bag in the open, a few yards away from my tent, his rifle by his side. Soon, oblivious to hyena cackles and the pebbles under my thin camping mattress, I fall into a deep sleep. I can’t remember when I last slept for nine hours without tossing and turning.

In the mornings, the smell of coffee and bacon entices me to pull on my jeans, T-shirt, and socks. Then I turn my boots over and pat the soles to make sure there are no scorpions inside before slipping them on and tying the laces. Eggs poach in scooped-out orange skin. A bouquet of smoky grilled toast, orange-flavored eggs, and coffee with sweetened condensed milk fills the air.

We head off across the flat plains of Damaraland. Every night we camp in a new unenclosed area—Spitzkoppe, the Doros Crater, Burnt Mountain, and Organ Pipes, where dolerite columns line the sides of a small valley. One evening we sleep near a petrified forest filled with fossilized trees. We spend our days climbing cliffs and crags that take us through a variety of unusual rock formations over thirty feet high.

“This is a scary place,” I say, “I wouldn’t like to be here at night with these sculptures of apes, crocodiles, rhinos, and witches.”

“Ja, for sure. Remember, these shapes came after a huge volcano collapsed here some eighty million years ago,” Karl explains, letting out a low whistle. “The wind and infrequent but torrential rain storms turned it into nature’s best art gallery.”

One afternoon, in the shadow of two towering granite mountains, Karl parks the vehicle near a boulder as high as a three-story building.

“Watch out for this,” he says, pointing at a nearby tree. “If you touch it you can die. When the San were hunter-gatherers, they used the tree’s white sap to poison the tips of their arrows.” I flinch and tuck my elbows in tight and note the shape of the leaves, while Karl strides on ahead.

“This is where we’ll see the rock paintings that most people never get to view. They’re hidden behind these crags,” Karl says. He reaches back to help me jump over a crevice that looks as wide as a city bus.
“C’mon, you can jump this,” Karl insists when I balk. He looks me up and down. “You’re so curious about everything. Now, with those new skoene, for sure you can make it. I want you to see this artwork. Man, it’s something else.”

The crevice is deep, dark, and menacing, but looking straight ahead, I leap toward Karl’s outstretched hands. He grasps my forearm and pulls me over toward him, then steadies my right ankle. The wind whispers as I crawl to the top of the kopje, where Karl finds a piece of art and history about one hundred feet wide on a wall underneath a rock that overlooks an endless escarpment.

Five or maybe even twenty thousand years ago, artists used brushes made from the tails and manes of wildebeest to paint men with spears running after a lion. A group of women holding hands in a circle stands close by. For a while, Karl and I are quiet and still, as if we were standing in a holy place. I take several deep slow breaths, savoring this divine silence. We have the world to ourselves. On cue, the breeze abates and my T-shirt stops fluttering. The longer I gaze, the more shadows and etchings I see—a baby tied on a woman’s back, a baby rhino with an exaggerated long horn, and men sprinting, their legs flying in the air. Almost an hour later, Karl walks within inches of the rock face and clears his throat.

“Researchers say that the red and brown colors are made from finely ground iron oxide mixed with a binder made from animal fat or urine,” he says, pointing at the etchings on the pinkish rock face. “The paint penetrated the sandstone surfaces, which is why the paintings still look so good after thousands of years.”

Charcoal outlines of buried ostrich eggs are harder to spot. Karl explains how the San pierced the shells, sucked out the yolks and whites, filled the empty shells with water during the rainy season, and then buried them. These “eggs” served as their only water source during the long dry season.

“On the ground, you can still find the hunter’s chisels and spear tips.” Karl picks up a few sculpted stones. “Luckily, very few people know this place exists, so the stones are safe for now.”

I fold my palms around pointed stones, stroking them and trying to imagine what it must’ve been like, living so intimately with nature. I marvel at the San’s ability to thrive in what initially seemed like such a harsh landscape, but here is evidence of an ancient, durable economic organization.

“Life as a hunter-gather was not constant work as we tend to imagine, and except for extreme drought, the San had a reliable, well-balanced diet until they had to share the land with white farmers,” Karl says, reading my mind. “When the Germans annexed South West Africa, now Namibia, in the 1880s, they drove the San off their land and destroyed their way of life. Their only way to survive was to farm goats or chickens or work in the diamond mines, and many struggled to make this difficult transition.”

We stay for hours, looking for and sharing stories on the stone surface before we move to the next cave, the next stone, the next cliff, and the next mountain. Karl jumps from rock to rock like a mountain goat and often reaches for my hand and then shoulder when he sees me wobbling on a loose rock or stumbling over a boulder. My body begins to feel lighter and my footsteps more confident as Karl steers me along unmarked paths.

One morning, as we’re packing up to move to our next camp, an elephant walks within fifty feet of my tent and lifts his trunk as if to say hello. I hold my breath and raise my hand to wave back, but Karl cautions me to keep absolutely still.

“You don’t want to scare the beast,” he whispers. “He’ll run fast and, man, we won’t stand a chance.”
The elephant turns and moves on—only then do I let out my breath. On another day, I crouch behind a bush watching a tower of giraffe saunter around thorny acacia trees and strip the leaves but not the thorns, their long tongues wrapping the foliage as if they were rolling cigarettes. Wildebeests, with their wrinkled necks, graze among herds of zebras and springbok and look up anxiously as we approach. A flock of lemony-yellow weaverbirds construct their intricate nests; nearby, a female ostrich sprints away from her group.

“She looks like my Aunt Flora clinging to her shopping bag and running for the bus,” I say.

“Ja,” Karl says laughing. “And that one behind her looks like my neighbor Jan when he goes jogging. He’s chasing her now, I think he fancies her.”

“And she’s pecking at his neck to stay away.”

Vultures ignore us when we kneel to watch them picking at a sable antelope carcass. By the time they hop off, barely able to fly because of their distended bellies, no blood or meat remains on the antelope skeleton. I spend an hour inspired by the courage of a dung beetle rolling a ball of elephant poop twenty times its size up a hill and even appreciate the putrid stench of a rotting kudu carcass as hyenas crunch the bones. Defiant brittlebush shrubs sprout out of crevices, enticing me to hike miles every day. My legs seem to fly across boulders, my back feels straighter, my neck looser, and I haven’t had to take a headache pill for days. In a dusty village, we stop to refuel the jeep, fill the jerry can with water, and buy a cup of Nescafé from a tin shack. Karl chats with shop owners in Khoisan, the local dialect, which is unusual for a white man.

“Toxoba, thank you,” I say, struggling to click my tongue on the x.

In the evenings, shelling and nibbling on peanuts and swigging beer by the campfire, Karl and I discuss the problems of refugees fleeing to Europe, Brexit, the rise of terrorism, and the consequences of climate change. He is surprisingly well informed for someone who’s never left the region.

“I guide about twenty lodge safari groups a year,” Karl tells me, stoking the embers with a stick. “I’m so lucky, man. People come here from all over the world. And I learn so much from them all.”

Near the end of our trip, I confide in Karl about John’s illness and the death sentence it cast upon us. He listens patiently.

“You know,” I say, as I pull the tab on my third can of lager, “John actually rowed a marathon, two weeks before he started feeling breathless. Only then, after a scan, we were told he was riddled with asbestos. No cure; nothing to do; only morphine for the pain.”

“Ja, such is life, I’m afraid. Shame. I’m so sorry for your loss.”

It has been a while since I talked with anyone about this painful time, but now I don’t cry or choke. I’m in a strange mood entering the anticlimax of this journey’s end, wishing I could stay on camping with Karl for another few weeks. We stare into the dying flames, silent, and I toss a few more logs onto the fire. It’s past midnight before we turn in.

On our last day, we walk through the dunes near another abandoned mine before we exit the park at the remote Ugab police station. A sudden squall grabs our travel permit from Karl’s hand, and we chase it, sinking up to our knees in the dunes, laughing as we flop near a shed with no door and sand almost up to the ceiling. The paper is nowhere to be seen when we stand up trying to steady ourselves.

“We might have to stay here forever if they don’t let us out,” Karl says.

I shake the dust off my head, put my cap back on, and laugh. If only.

Near the exit, we lean against the jeep, pull off our boots and bang out the sand. I open an iron gate displaying a sign with a skull and crossbones. Karl drives through, and I close it behind us. A border policeman stamps another piece of paper, takes a note from Karl, and hands me a T-shirt with “Skeleton Coast” in bold blue letters on a brown background. The wind whips around my calves as we walk back to the jeep and my feet sink into the fine sand. I step onto a human skull and scream. Karl turns, reaches for my forearm, and steadies me just before I’m about to fall over. Decades or maybe centuries ago, this other soul hadn’t made it. We have.

A few hours later, we drive into Swakopmund, a town built by German settlers, and stop for lunch at a café that resembles a timber-framed cottage in the Black Forest. As we tuck into juicy peri-peri chicken liver sandwiches, Karl leans toward me and says, “A while back we were well off here. My grandparents emigrated from Germany, and we had a five-hundred-acre sheep farm. My Ma, aach, a lovely woman, gave a German neighbor some diamonds to sell. When she went to collect her cash a few weeks later, this lady denied all knowledge of the stones.”

I wipe my mouth with my paper napkin, wondering where his story is going.

“So, the next day, my brother went with Ma to pressure the woman. They had a few drinks, smoked some dagga, and drove off with my rifle, only to scare her. They argued and mistakenly shot this lady—she died.”

Normally, I drink unsweetened coffee, but now I rip open a packet of sugar and scatter its contents into my coffee cup. With a trembling arm, I refill my cup with the strong brew, add more sugar, and gulp it down. As Karl barrels on, all I think about is that I’ve been alone in the veldt with a man from a family of murderers.

“That was a very bad time for me,” Karl continues. “My Pa didn’t want to be involved in this scandal, so he abandoned us and went to live in Cape Town.” He pushes his chair away from the table and rocks on its back legs. His eyes fill with tears. Karl’s voice fades to a whisper when he describes how he was reviled by the white community.

“The Blacks in the townships let me sleep in their shanties. Finally, I found a lawyer who agreed to represent us and spent a fortune on legal fees,” Karl mutters, dropping his forehead into his upturned palms. “But it didn’t help. Ma died in jail, and my brother, he’s out now. Tonight, he will join us for dinner.”

I shift toward the edge of my chair. Stoked on caffeine, sugar, and Linzer torte, I clamp my hands on my thighs and rub my knees. I’ve never met a murderer before and my stomach clenches. Maybe his pa did the right thing by leaving town, but I couldn’t bolt. My forefinger circles the rim of my coffee cup as my mind flies to dark places. Selfishly, I’m glad I didn’t know this before we set out into the bush. Scorpions and snakes would’ve been the least of my concerns. I would’ve watched his every move. The sharp butcher knife he used to chop vegetables and slice lamb chops would’ve haunted me; the rifle would have terrorized me; my friends’ voices would have taunted me with their smug “I told you so’s.”

Then my head sinks into my shoulders; the shame is all mine. I shiver, and yet I feel at odds with myself for judging him—for contaminating him with his family’s sins when we’d just spent such meaningful time alone together in the wild. He’d gone out of his way to show me rock paintings that most tourists and even locals knew nothing about; he’d cooked for me and pushed and pulled me up cliffs, and not once did I feel abandoned or threatened. For a fortnight, I’d trusted Karl with my life. How could I dismiss him now for a crime he did not commit? Banishing uncharitable thoughts, I feel his grief and imagine how tough it must have been for him to organize his mother’s funeral, how hard it must have been to mourn her. I lean forward and lay my palms on his sinewy forearms. His head slumps onto my hands. For almost two weeks we’d cooked together, slept a few feet away from each other, and trekked for miles in the wild, rarely seeing another soul. Now, surrounded by other diners in the only café in town, he is finally trusting me with his secret.

A chair scrapes, the ceiling fan whirrs, and a cell phone rings. Chilled, I pull my long-sleeved shirt on over my T-shirt and excuse myself to go to the bathroom. A tanned face I hadn’t seen for two weeks stares back at me. No longer gaunt and pale, I look ten years younger. The furrows above my brow are not quite so deep, and the crow’s feet around my eyes look less pronounced. This time on my own has brought me back into the world, and I smile at what I see. Outside, his eyes still moist, Karl leans against the dusty jeep. I touch his shoulder, and we climb in without speaking. The morning fog has cleared and icy Atlantic waves smack the bleached white sand. Seagulls flutter, squawk, and screech as they swoop and dive into the navy ocean. We carry on silently along the coastal road back to Walvis Bay. Tucking my left leg underneath me I turn to face him.

“Thanks for sharing your family story with me. I’m glad that things have settled down okay and that your brother is back in your life. I look forward to our dinner this evening before I fly out.”

Karl nods, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down a few times as he wipes his cheek.

“In the meantime,” I continue, “I’m up for another trip. How about organizing a camping trip to Botswana’s Okavango Swamps next year?”

Susan Bloch is a freelance writer living in Seattle. Her essay “The Mumbai Massacre” (Blue Lyra Review) received notable mention in The Best American Essays 2017. Her writing has also appeared in Tikkun, The Huffington Post, Quail Bell Magazine, Entropy Magazine, and Secret Histories, among others. You can find more of her work at

That Other Hijab Story

April 15th, 2019

By Maryah Converse

Culture and Ideas Gold Winner in the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards

When I tell people that I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Jordan, the response is usually predictable: “Wow. How was that?”

How am I supposed to answer that in few enough words that their eyes don’t glaze over? Overwhelming. Amazing. The hardest job you’ll ever love. A place where I was always and inexplicably a foreigner and a daughter of the desert at the same time.

And sooner or later, they ask the inevitable question: “Did you have to…?”

Sometimes they know the right word (hijab) for the scarf wrapped and pinned about the head and neck. Sometimes they use the politically charged wrong word: burqa. European politicians use this word to describe the niqab face veil, usually black, which is the free choice of several educated Muslim women I know. The actual burqa is a specific garment, that head-to-toe tent, usually blue, with a grate over the eyes, which women in much of Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan are forced to wear on pain of death or disfigurement.

Most often, though, people just give an all-encompassing wave from my head to my toes and leave the words up to me. “The hijab? No, I did not wear hijab. Except in mosques, of course. And that one time when my student’s grandfather who had been imam of a local mosque for twenty years wanted to speak to me, and his daughters asked me to wear hijab so that he would be comfortable sitting in the same room.”

“You weren’t pressured to cover up otherwise?”

“No.” Except for that one time that I never talk about.

~ ~ ~

I find it ironic that Americans ask it that way, “cover up,” because that is exactly what “hijab” means: dress modestly, not just on your head but in all your dress, men and women alike. In Jordan, modesty is equally the long shift dress known as an abaya, and the wide-cut pleated slacks that men wear. Yet, when Americans say “cover up,” most are only talking about my hair, just like when they (and yes, many Muslims) say “hijab.”

When I first moved back to Jordan again after the Peace Corps, I had a classmate who used to harass our teacher Ishraq about her sleek, stylish scarves. “I can see your hair!” he would exclaim when a wisp snuck out at her temple. “Now you have to marry me!”

I found it patronizing and insulting, and it always made me angry. Once, I confronted him about it, asked him to stop. “Why?” he asked. “It’s what her own religion demands. She even agreed with me when I asked her.”

I could not convince him that his literal interpretation of a fundamentalist reading of a polyvalent text divorced from its historical context was unfair and insulting. I tried to explain that like the Calvinism that had shaped his cultural and religious heritage, Islam teaches each Muslim to read the Qur’an and other historical sources and commentaries in order to reach her own understanding of God’s commandments. I pointed out that the Qur’an says that only God can know who is a believer in her heart, and what God sees in a Muslim’s heart matters on Judgement Day more than who has seen a wisp of her hair.

“But that’s what it says in the Qur’an,” he always insisted, even though the Qur’an only asks the modest woman to cover that which is usually covered, and the modest man to do likewise.

Which is why I never talk about that other time.

Too often in America, we infantilize these women as passive victims of a patriarchal oppression, but the Muslim women I knew in Jordan were strong, independent, opinionated, and sometimes defiant. Those are the stories I want to tell, the ones that undermine stereotypes instead of reinforcing them. Even though oppression is very real in many majority-Muslim communities, the position of women in those communities is so much more complex than a compulsory head covering.

~ ~ ~

The only woman other than me who did not wear hijab in the school where I taught in the Peace Corps was the counselor I’ll call Maram.

“My father told me not to,” I heard her tell the Islam teacher with titanium conviction. “He taught all his daughters that the hijab is a sacred symbol of faith, and that we should never wear it just because all the other girls were doing it. In fact, my father forbid his daughters from wearing hijab,” she said with steely pride, “unless and until we felt from the bottom of our hearts that we were called by God to do so.”

Since childhood, I had instinctively understood the hijab to be a sacred symbol, like wearing a yarmulke or a crucifix. This was the first Muslim woman I had heard explain it so succinctly, the first of many. And the first of many men I would come to know who insisted that their wives and daughters should make an informed, considered choice whether to cover themselves and to what degree.

Maram must have said the same to our students when they asked. Some of the more assertive, independent eighth graders relinquished the headscarves they had only recently begun wearing. I overheard one girl, defending her decision, proclaim, “Miss Maram said….”

My teacher Ishraq was an equally strong woman who chose to wear a neatly pinned, stylish headscarf. Fluent in English even without ever leaving Jordan, she had a college degree, a good job, and a stubborn mix of defiance and defense of tradition.

The love of her life was paraplegic in a country where disability is traditionally understood as a curse on entire extended families. Her father refused to allow their engagement, then forbade her from seeing her beloved at all. Ishraq told me that she understood her father’s concerns. He worried that for her to marry this man meant being his caregiver for the rest of their lives, meant being the primary breadwinner in a culture where men were heads of household.

She acknowledged that she might never have children, in a country where both husbands and wives derived their honor and prestige, even their names from their children. Her father did not understand, she said, that she wanted to measure her worth instead by her career successes and by honoring her heart. Even when her father imposed house arrest, Ishraq continued to defy him and maintain her relationship.

Out of respect for these and so many other strong, proud, devout Muslimah in and out of hijab, I do not like to talk about that other time, in Jordan’s desert south. I do not want to contribute yet another story to the dark side of the hijab we read about week after week in Western media. I want to represent the best things about the Muslims I have known and respected.

Still, I know all too well that there is a defensive hijab, worn not out of conviction but out of fear. I once succumbed to that dark side myself, and it haunts me every time I talk about the hijab.

My friend Philip, once an Arabic linguist in the military, was visiting me in Jordan. I had been showing him around the ancient rose-red city of Petra in the south, and we were headed back up north to my apartment in Amman. It had just started snowing in the mountains, and we missed the last bus up the King’s Highway. I was brainstorming our options in Arabic with a man at the bus station I’ll call Tamer.
Philip and I could take a local bus east to Ma’an on the Desert Highway, but Tamer called a friend and discovered that the last one of the day had already left. And I did not want to go through Ma’an. It was the only city in Jordan I had never visited, the only place that Peace Corps had forbidden us to go.

Wherever else I have ever gone in Jordan, I always felt completely safe. Everyone knew that the secret police were watching over me. If CNN ever picked up a story about an American coming to harm in Jordan, the kingdom would lose the generous foreign aid they depend on, and even the country’s conservatives didn’t really want that. This was not enough to reassure me in Ma’an, though.

Periodically, disagreements between tribes turned into real violence on the campus of the university there. At the time of Philip’s visit, several students had recently been killed and injured in Ma’an, prompting further violence and deaths as far away as the University of Jordan in Amman. Then there is the Muslim Brotherhood, banned in Jordan, but which exists nonetheless, favoring a militant response to Israel and a government closer to their conservative Salafi interpretations of Islam. The Brotherhood’s adherents are most concentrated in the area of Ma’an. On the rare occasion when riots break out in Jordan, which had also happened in recent years over the skyrocketing prices of bread and fuel, they usually happen in Ma’an first.

Finally, Tamer said, “I’ll drive you.” In America, I would never agree to this, but in Jordan, my adoptive ties with the second largest tribe in the small kingdom and my convincing Bedouin accent gave me a sense of security. Plus, I was with Philip, a protection on several levels, at least symbolically. We agreed to a surprisingly reasonable fare for this ride in the back of Tamer’s roughly twenty-year-old station wagon. The seats were covered in wool rugs, handwoven locally, possibly by Tamer’s grandmother. No one wore seatbelts.

We chatted on the drive, mostly in Arabic. Tamer wanted to know where I had learned my incongruously perfect educated Bedouin-become-urbanite Jordanian Arabic accent. I talked about my two years of Peace Corps, teaching English in a small Bedouin village in the north of the country.

“But you don’t live there now,” he guessed, knowing we were trying to get to the capital.
“No, I live in Amman now. I teach English at a community college, mostly to business people.”
I got Tamer and Philip laughing with stories about unlearning the most egregious markers of my hick Bedouin accent once I had moved to the city.

As we approached the Desert Highway, though, Tamer quieted. “You have a scarf,” he said, “right?”
“Yes,” I said, “I have a scarf.” Jordan’s mountain passes, not much higher in elevation than Petra, were filling up with snow, and Philip and I had gone pashmina shopping in the Amman souk earlier in the week. I had scarves in several colors, on my person and in my bag.

“You should put it on,” Tamer said, and I knew he did not mean for warmth.

I thought about Maram and Ishraq, and about an Afghan family friend back in the States who had worn hijab since her Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. “I wear the headscarf,” she told my mother, “to remind me of being in the Great Mosque with millions of pilgrims from all over the world, all gathered for the same great, peaceful purpose.”

I thought about a Pakistani-American friend. Coincidentally, after months of careful consideration, the first morning she wore a headscarf to school was September 11, 2001. Despite the backlash against Muslims that followed, she still wears the hijab today, as a statement of political defiance as well as religious devotion. Her sweet, erudite, Pakistani-American Muslim husband affirms her freedom to wear the hijab according to her own understanding of the Qur’an, but after she got married, the policing of her appearance by friends and family online became too much to bear. Rather than compromise her understanding of Islam, she retired from social media.

Thinking of all these women and more, I unwrapped the pashmina around my neck and pulled out my wallet, where I usually kept a couple safety pins clipped into the lining. The hijab was a symbol of the sacred, of peaceful unity, of devotion, and sometimes identity politics. Yet here I was, pinning a scarf under my chin, purely out of fear for my safety. I was queasy now over more than just my concerns about Ma’an.
As I wrapped myself in hijab, Tamer spoke in a low, urgent voice. “Listen,” he said, “you be careful in Ma’an. I’ll get as close as I can to the Amman bus, and you get right on it. If anyone talks to you, speak Arabic in your heaviest Bedouin accent, understood?”

He looked in the rearview mirror at Philip behind him. “You let her do the talking. You don’t say anything. Just stick together and don’t speak English until you get up the Desert Highway.”

We assured him that we would follow his advice.

“I’m sure you’ll be fine,” our driver said with forced confidence. “But you have to be careful in Ma’an.”

Driving into the Ma’an bus station, Tamer urged, “Remember, no English!” We thanked him and reassured him yet again that only I would speak, and in my thickest Bedouin accent.

No one bothered us. I asked the bus driver if he was going to Amman, he said yes, we got on the bus, sat down together—Philip on the aisle as a Jordanian husband or brother would do—and that was it. Some ten minutes later, barreling up the road, we began talking quietly. In English or Arabic, no one turned to look or even perked up an ear. Eventually, I unpinned and unwrapped my pashmina. There was no actual danger, and perhaps there never had been. Perhaps Tamer had overreacted, fallen into that paternalism that I usually chafed at in Jordan.

I was raised, in Ben Franklin’s own state, to believe that those who sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither. As a woman, though, almost every time I walk down the street, whether in Ma’an or Harlem, I know that it is rarely so simple. Sometimes I have to wonder, on my block in Newark, if I’m nervous because the man following too closely behind me is black, or just because he’s a man. Recently, on the sidewalk of a small town in New Hampshire, I found myself shrinking backward, heart racing with the same reflexive defensiveness to a white man in his seventies being genuinely friendly.

Wearing hijab was the right decision for myself at the time. Regardless, I felt that I had lost something. I had lost the sense that I was always safe in my adopted country and culture, always protected. Perhaps in part I do not tell this hijab story because, although my fear was real at the time, a sense of shame still lingers years later. It’s the same shame I feel when I wonder if I have profiled someone on the sidewalk for his color. I still regret that I succumbed in some small way to that dark side of the hijab, despite my sincere admiration of Islam and love of Jordan, despite my best, most sincerely felt intentions.

And I understand, in some very small way, what it means to wear the hijab out of fear, not devotion.

Maryah Converse was a Peace Corps educator in Jordan, 2004-2006, and was studying in Cairo during the 2011 Arab Spring. She has written for publications including From Sac, New Madrid Journal, BLYNKT, Silk Road Review, The Matador Review, and Michigan Quarterly Review. Gulf Stream Literary Magazine nominated her work for the 2017 Best of the Net collection, and she has twice been an honorable mention in the New Millennium Writing Awards. Maryah holds a Masters in Near Eastern Languages, teaches Arabic and English as foreign languages in the New York area, and blogs intermittently at This story previously appeared in From Sac, Volume 4, 2016.

This Never Happens

April 8th, 2019

By Anne Lowrey

Bad Trip Gold Winner in the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards

Nunca ha pasado aquí,” he repeated. I shrugged as if I didn’t hear him, though I understood every word.

“This never happens.”

Except it did. I sat silently in the back of the rusted car that was taking me slowly away from the events of the past few days. I had run out of words to say in Spanish. In the middle of Colombia’s coffee country, with nothing but the clothes on my back, I was too exhausted to be angry.

“This never happens” was all anybody seemed to be able to say to me when I told them. Each time the phrase came it spoke with a loaded look that also pleaded, “Please don’t tell anyone.”

Why did getting robbed with a gun to my head feel like some terrible secret I’d be forced to keep?

I couldn’t think about that now. I needed to get to the nearest airport. There, with only a torn and faded police report in hand, I would somehow board a plane to Bogota and get to the U.S. Embassy for my emergency passport. Soon, I thought, I’d be home. I didn’t dare yet wonder what that might feel like.

As the car turned, I was jolted out of disorientation. Looking past the dashboard ahead at the road, I held back tears as the driver turned his weathered hands gently across the leather steering wheel. It seemed the closer I got to leaving Colombia, the more I let myself feel the depth of the pain. I thought back to my first few days in the country.

It wasn’t supposed to go this way.

Jaimee and I came to Colombia as travel writers, openhearted and eager to show the world a place safe and beautiful and worth traveling to. She and I had met only a few months prior on assignment in Acapulco, and under the blistering Mexican sun, became instant friends. Historically a glamorous oceanfront destination, Acapulco was now haunted by (and losing money from) its reputation for violence. Our job was to dig deep, guided of course by the local tourism board, to present the positives to prospective travelers.

The thrill of having achieved this in Acapulco left us both clamoring for our next adventure, both silently drawn to a place that perhaps was similarly misunderstood. Together we scanned the world map for the next country waiting to be featured and discovered. We imagined dots on an atlas as if each were waiting for us with open arms, filled with the culture and kindness we had come to expect, each brimming with beauty, stuffed with stories wanting to be told.

“What about Colombia?” I said.

“Isn’t it dangerous?” She, like so many before her, had asked.

“I hear it’s really improving,” I assured her. “Lots of people I know have gone and actually said it was their favorite place in South America.” Still, she didn’t seem convinced.

In the weeks that followed, I gathered the evidence to present my case: the brightly-colored doors of Cartagena, wooden stairs winding to the scenic top of El Penol rock, even a remote tropical island off the coast of paradise we could scuba dive from. What was your favorite part about Colombia? I’d asked of the many travelers in my life. Their answer was always the same: the people. That alone was good enough for me.

“We can do all of this and more with a month there,” I explained. “Though we’ll want to leave a bit of time open, to see where the stories take us.”

Before long we are buzzing the front gate bell of a hostel in Medellin, one of the country’s best-known cities. There the story is clear: in a place that once had the highest murder rate in the world, a city made infamous by cocaine and cartels, there is still much beauty to be found. From the interiors of the trendy Colombian cafes to the revitalized urban plazas, to the tram that now runs from its gleaming metro all the way to the fringes of the rainforest, it seems that Medellin is rising and shining out of the shadows. From above, you can spot shiny new escalators and even elegantly designed new local libraries, each running through the comunas dotted below and, as we are proudly told, providing residents access to non-drug related prosperity for the first time in decades.

Our days pass quickly in beautiful Medellin. Plane tickets are booked, itineraries formed, friends made. We feel especially fortunate to meet one woman in particular. She is the leader of the free city walking tour we take through otherwise intimidating parts of Medellin. With her light skin, reddish hair, and perfect English, at first we don’t recognize that she is Colombian.

“I’m not just Colombian,” she tells us. “I’m paisa.” Born and raised in Antioquia, the department of the country Medellin is in, she beamed with pride in her heritage and like many others from there, sees herself as a bit different than the rest of Colombia.

Jaimee and I begin to ask her questions we wouldn’t ask anyone else. We learned quickly not to mention the name Pablo Escobar, arguably the world’s most infamous criminal — for the wounds are still fresh and the whole of the country yearns to be known for any thing other than him.

Even our new friend’s family had been personally affected. For members of her family, like so many, the choice was to leave their home or lose their lives, which I gather is part of the reason she’s so firmly grounded in her paisa identity today.

She lets us in the local secrets hidden underneath this new, shiny facade: why, in fact, prostitutes stand counterintuitively by the church, where the best fried chicken can be found, why Colombians are so eager to celebrate life. Motioning us to come closer, she is the first to tell us about “dar papaya,” a phrase in Spanish that every Colombian who values themselves knows intimately. Translating roughly to “giving papaya,” it is “unnecessarily giving the opportunity for something to happen, exposing himself, risking himself, being in danger, being innocent.” In simple terms, it’s knowing that flashing your wealth means someone will want to take it from you.

“For Colombians,” she explains, “‘dar papaya’ is one of the biggest sins anyone can commit, because they believe that there will always be someone who takes advantage of it. That is to say, someone will always take the fruit that is shown.” We nod in understanding.

We share our love of Colombian coffee with her. At her and so many others’ urging, we decide to move on as the city prepares for Halloween, one of its biggest celebrations. We sleep soundly that evening with plans to get the next bus to the coffee country first thing in the morning.

The morning bus, and as it turns out the only direct bus, is already fully booked. Advised to head to the station to see if we can’t grab a spot regardless, we strap on our well-worn backpacks and step into the depot wide-eyed and ready for the countryside.

I hand over my card to pay for the route, an eight or so hour ride on a plush-looking coach to the city of Armenia, where we’ll catch a smaller bus for less than an hour to the scenic small town we have booked our next guesthouse in. I hand my large backpack to the bus attendant as we approach our ride, and he inquires in Spanish what my final destination will be.

Vamos a Salento,” I tell him. I pause as I look at him juggling 4 or 5 large suitcases, his thin arms buried by the weight of all of our things. He can’t be more than 12 or 13 years old.

“You should get the direct bus to Salento,” he tells me, still conversing in Spanish, to which I reply that there are no more direct buses today.

“You should stay in Medellin and wait for the direct bus,” the small boy insists. But I explain that tonight is Halloween and all the accommodation I know of is fully booked. His wide eyes shift sharply away from mine. He seems conflicted. No matter his hesitation, his job was still to make sure I got on the bus. Rushed to board by the shoves of passengers behind me, I stepped aboard the bus to Salento despite his low whispers.

Eight hours later we found ourselves in what seemed exactly like the same depot we departed from. There were the same rows of black and red coach buses, many blaring rhythmic tunes and most surrounded by some small person selling snacks. Jaimee and I know we have to find our next bus quickly, as it’s the last one that runs for the evening.

Salento? Dónde está el autobús por Salento?” We run through the station strapped to our heavy packs, stopping men in cowboy hats and frantically asking many people to kindly point us in the right direction.

Our frenzy to arrive on the right bus ends with us being the first to board a much smaller vehicle, one that couldn’t have held more than twenty people. It feels eerily empty in comparison to the flurry of activity elsewhere. I continue to ask passerbys my one-word question, “Salento?”

Some short minutes later the bus has obtained a few more fellow passengers, and we begin to crawl out of the depot. I wonder as I look around at the others around me, Am I on the right bus? I had asked enough times to be more than a little certain. I did notice that we were the only tourists…but since when, in all my years of traveling, was that a cause for concern? I put in my headphones and drifted off, leaning my head against the cold window as I prepare for the final leg of our long journey.

The bus slowed to a halt no more than ten minutes later. Out the window I notice the shadowy outline of a church. It’s not yet dark out, but it’s getting there. I didn’t realize this bus stopped anywhere else, thinking no more of the five people we pick up on the outskirts of town. With them a few families climb on board, squishing into the back beside me. Little girls no more than five years old, dressed in their sparkling princess costumes, are eager to show me their trick-or-treat loot. I smile widely at them and decline their offer to share their candy as we giggle together and speak softly in Spanish. The sun continues to set.

I awaken sharply from my daydreaming out the window. Nearly just as soon as the light had disappeared from the sky, I feel my headphones yanked suddenly and violently from my ears. Before I have time to realize what is happening, I feel the chain of a favorite necklace similarly ripped from my neck. With the bus picking up speed and the fluorescent lights flung on, I see from the periphery as five men leap to the aisles of the bus. Each of them held a black handgun.

My eyes scan the small bus interior in utter disbelief. One of them stands defiantly at the front. Another holds a gun to the bus driver’s head. I look over at Jaimee and see a woman beside her. She is armed as well, and searching frantically my friend’s seat for her Apple laptop.

I struggle to take all of this in; I hear the woman in front of me sobbing like her life depends on it long before I notice the teenager shaking in front of me. Like the rest of them, he had a gun fragilely draping from his fingertips.

The boy searched my body for valuables. I nudged my small backpack, the one I keep on me at all times, the one with my money, computer, camera, lenses, and passport in it…thinking that if I pushed it enough under the seat in front of me perhaps it would go unnoticed. The reach of his hands continues across my lap and then, underneath my clothes, causing me to force his hand away. It was a sudden movement I wouldn’t have made from any place other than pure instinct, and a mistake I quickly realized wasn’t smart with a gun pointed at me.

He stopped his search of my body and proceeded to the floor. I’ll never forget the noise he made when he found my bag under the seat. It was a sound as if to say nothing more than, ah…this is what you’ve been keeping from me. This is what I thought you might have on you when I boarded this bus with this loaded gun.

With every valuable I owned now in his arms, the teenager who had been assigned to rob me stood in the aisle beside me. The bus lights went down, and I sat slightly petrified next to him. The Colombian woman in front of me was still crying.

How could he sit there with all of my things? He’s just a kid, I thought. And why did this happen to me? I wasn’t giving papaya — other than my blond hair I didn’t stand out; I am dressed like a ragged backpacker. I don’t look rich, but I don’t look Colombian either. This kid doesn’t stop to know I grew up with a Colombian aunt, that I’m here to prove how wonderful his country is, that I’m near fluent in Spanish.

With complete calm, I realize the one item that I need to ask him for in this moment. I speak in a low whisper, channeling my aunt’s accent to him. The Spanish flows from my lips without thought. I need my passport.

He begins to search my small bag, eventually handing me a red leather luggage tag that is nearly the size of a passport. I had removed it from my black backpack when we landed, realizing it made me stand out too much.

It was not my passport, but he was trying. He began to ask me where in the bag he could find it. For a moment, I felt that he might be able to give me the one thing I really did not want to let go of.

Mid-sentence I sense the presence of another man, another gun. I raise my eyes from the floor where my bag sat and stare directly into the barrel of a loaded gun. I feel the cold metal pressed lightly to my temple. Acting again out of pure instinct, I duck and cover my head with both my arms.

I now know that part of my mind has blocked this moment out to some degree, but in this moment I do feel that I am about to lose my life. I can no longer see the figures of the hijackers, not even their outlines. I only feel them, feel the charge in the air that must come from the waiting for their moment of escape, from the holding of a firearm in each of their hands.

I don’t look up again until the lights flash on and the group of men and women with guns rush to depart. We have reached their exit point. They leave the bus with every bag on board. They take every item I have traveled with, down to the cheap jewelry I was wearing. What will they do with my journal, I wonder? They can’t even read it.

The bus drives slowly on, the driver now without a loaded gun at his head, until it stutters to a stop. The lights remain on, but the darkness is fully upon us. It hits me that we are in the middle of a Colombian jungle. I feel the woman seated in front of me reach for my hand. She squeezes it with every ounce of her strength, as though it might transport us both out of this nightmare. I look down at my hand as if to feel some pain, either physical or emotional. I feel nothing.

The bus isn’t going anywhere. I’m eerily calm and clear-headed, almost detached from everything happening around me. Sitting in shock and disbelief, I’m as if I’m merely a witness to it all, watching everything take place from behind a protective partition. It’s not until cars begin to pass us, and the young girls, still dressed in their princess outfits, begin to bang loudly with their small hands on the bus windows to try and get their attention. Each car flies past us, a bus full of people stopped in the middle of the highway, but no one will stop. The cries of the small girls grows louder and more desperate. This is yet another sound that I will never forget.

The policia arrive suspiciously soon. They seem overly concerned with what I lost in the hijacking. All I can think about is how the bus still isn’t moving. As the police officer asks me to estimate the total amount of what I just lost, my mind wanders to imagine the robbers running back to the bus and shooting us through the back window. Can we please turn the engine back on and drive away to anywhere that isn’t here? For the first time in all my life, I feel completely powerless.

I don’t think I formed a coherent thought for the next few hours. Not even the Spanish that flowed effortlessly from my mouth, words that I didn’t even know I knew, came from a conscious place. Then sitting in the Salento police station, where we had been escorted, I was jolted back to reality with a few words from one of the officers, “can’t you just get the money back from your American insurance?”

I lost a necklace that belonged to my grandmother. I lost a journal that I’ve kept on five different continents. I lost photos I didn’t have time to backup in between trips, I thought. No, the money from the insurance I don’t have will not buy me back these things. I believed my life would end tonight. But how do I begin to explain this?

Name? Address? Age? Profession? The questions barked at me in Spanish are seeming endless. I shudder to think of navigating the experience had I not known the language. I notice that hardly anyone else from the bus has accompanied us to the police station.

“I’m a journalist,” I tell them. Though I usually have to think through whether to divulge this information when abroad, I state it matter-of-factly, and for the first time in all this organized chaos, I see an officer’s ears perk up as if something is out of the ordinary.

“I came to Colombia to write an article about it, to help bring tourists here.” I tell them. “How can I do that when I just lost my livelihood?” I scan their faces for a reaction, for any recognition of the meaning of my words. I get nothing.

“You need to wait here until we finish filing the reports. Then we’ll take you to your guesthouse.” They gesture to two empty chairs at the end of a row in the main room. I don’t want to go with them to our guesthouse. I don’t trust them at all. But without money or so much as a cell phone, what choice do I have?

We arrive at our planned accommodation on a small finca, or farm, in the back of cop cars like a couple of fugitives. Over the next few days that is exactly what we will feel like…we’re not guests at the house, but two terrified travelers waiting out the holiday weekend. We were two friends without so much as an identification card or a clean pair of underwear on us. We didn’t dare cry or complain, and as I would soon learn, we most certainly could not ask any questions.

This never happens.

Which is how I found myself sinking into the bench seat of that rusted car. The sadness in the eyes of that old Colombian man expressed understanding as I ran inside to the guesthouse computer to email my mother, powerless on the other side of the world, the numbers and letters of his license plate. At least she’d have this information in the event that she didn’t hear from me in the next 12 hours.

I had had plenty of time to call and block all of my credit cards, to plead with the embassy to process our emergency passport applications the moment they opened, to search the faces of every local I met for a shred of empathy. I hadn’t yet had a moment to wonder what this meant for me as a traveler, as a human being who had trusted nearly every person she came into contact with, no matter what part of town or which foreign country she found herself in. I was numb. I was terrified. I was relieved to be alive.

When they took my passport photo for the emergency passport in Bogota, I was so exhausted from crying and not sleeping that I couldn’t even keep both eyes open. My eyes twitched back and forth frantically as if in constant search of respite.

I was so scared of getting in cabs even to and from the embassy that I stopped three different police officers each time to vet the drivers before I would get in. I had “exchanged” money with a fellow traveler at the guesthouse, a young German backpacker who had given me cash after my solemn story in exchange for my promise to PayPal him the money once I got home. I had taken just enough to pay for our passports and our taxis, and no more.

So when the American embassy told us we’d be required to purchase passport-sized photographs for our rush application, we asked why no one had told us we needed money for that prior. We’d also need to leave the embassy to get the photos taken. That wasn’t “a service they provided.” I searched the American agent’s eyes for empathy, but again we were met with none of the warmth I had come to expect.

“Please, we have no money for our cab to the airport if we spend the last of our cash on these photos. Is there no way you can take them here?” She pursed her lips and nodded no. They can’t help us. If they gave money to us, they’d have to give it to everyone. She tells me she is sorry. I sigh in disbelief, but also relief at feeling perhaps one step closer to leaving this place.

The final hours before our departure were stacked with the additional stress of not being guaranteed same-day processing for our passports, the single item we’d be boarding the plane to go home with. As I sat in the hard plastic chair, I felt some tiny comfort knowing that at that moment, I was technically on American soil. I closed my eyes for the first time in days, took a deep breath, and heard my assigned number called over the loudspeaker.

“A46?” The American embassy agent confirmed with a question as I leapt eagerly to the counter.

“Your passport has been issued. Have a safe trip home,” she said as she passed the thin blue book under the glass partition. She met my eyes. I looked back at her with quiet resignation.

A few steps from the window I opened my passport and glimpsed at my own passport photo with devastation and pity. I did not recognize the woman in that photo.

Flipping through the final two or three pages, I came upon some money tucked into the back. Puzzled, I turned my head as I felt a half-smile come across my face. This wasn’t policy — she had made that clear. But in that moment, she gave me more than just what I needed to get home — she gave me understanding.

The words she had spoken moments earlier became the last sound from Colombia I’d never forget.

“This happens all the time.”

Anne Lowrey is an award-winning freelance travel writer based in San Francisco. She is a member of the content teams for both TripAdvisor and Skyscanner, with freelance work appearing in publications such as BBC Travel and Eater. Anne passionately believes you don’t have to give up the life you’re already living to see the world. She blogs at Part-Time Traveler, which emphasizes the connection between and balance of travel and home. She holds degrees in English and Global Studies from UCLA.

The Place Where Norman Slept

March 31st, 2019

By Teresa O’Kane

Animal Encounters Gold Winner in the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards

Norman is a solitary old bull elephant who lives on Amakhala Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Years ago, he spent his days with his elephant friend George, until George had a battle with an electric fence. These days Norman wanders alone, joining the breeding herd only during mating season. The rest of the time he observes the other elephants from a distance or ignores them completely. Norman is bigger than most elephants his age. He is the one who asserts discipline over the herd and metes out punishment when he and his eight tons deem it necessary.

I first heard about Norman during a two-night campout on Amakhala earlier in our training. During one of our walks, we came upon the remains of a decaying elephant lying on a gently sloping hillside. We could smell the scene long before we saw it. Sun-bleached bones picked clean by hyenas and vultures were strewn widely around the area. The putrefied hide of the elephant lay folded over on itself like a discarded area rug. The place felt creepy. We turned to our mentor, Schalk, and asked how the elephant had died.

“This was a problem elephant,” he began. “He was unpredictable. He routinely approached vehicles, pestered other elephants, and disrupted tranquility amongst the herd. The other elephants were nervous whenever he was around. Then one day, another elephant, Norman, decided to take matters into his own hands.” Schalk went on to say that the battle between the two elephants went on for several hours and that the shrieking of the herd as they watched the carnage could be heard a kilometer away.

My initial reaction to the story was that I wanted to stay as far away as possible from an animal as violent as Norman. Though Schalk always referred to him as a wonderful old elephant, each time I encountered Norman I felt on edge—until the day of my assessment.

Three of us were being evaluated that day, Scott, me, and a young Brit named Lewis. We each picked which animal we wanted to track and be tested on. When it was Scott’s turn he said, “I want to track Norman.” I was surprised and a little annoyed. Being around Norman still made me nervous. Eight tons is a lot of angry elephant. I gave Scott a look, (Seriously?) and fell in behind Lewis as we began tracking Norman.

But it wasn’t long before I was completely engrossed in looking for signs of Norman. Tracking animals had become the most compelling aspect of my time in the bush. I don’t necessarily ever need to lay eyes on the animal. It’s enough to figure out from their spoor what they did that day. It was like reading the diary of a wild thing.

We had tracked Norman’s spoor for over an hour on foot and by vehicle before his footprints disappeared in an area of tall grass and bushes. Peering into a wall of bushy shrubs, Schalk asked us to return to the vehicle, saying, “I want to go a little further on my own.”

Shortly, we heard a strange sound coming from the bushes. Then suddenly Schalk was running towards us at full tilt with an enormous smile on his face. We quickly opened the doors of the vehicle and were half in half out when Schalk whispered, “It’s Norman.” Schalk leaned on the door and caught his breath. “He’s sleeping. He was so still I thought, oh no, here is another dead elephant. But then he snored.”

“That was the sound we heard,” I said at a giddy whisper.

Schalk started the vehicle and moved it behind a large clump of bushes near Norman’s bedroom. Then we waited for Norman to wake up.

I stared into the thicket through binoculars. Each time Norman exhaled, the leaves on the bush next to him fluttered. We crept closer until we could hear him farting and snoring. We quietly made lunch. We made coffee. Finally, after an hour passed, we heard branches snapping. Norman was waking up. He exited his den stiffly and blinked in the bright sun.

Using bushes and trees as cover, we walked parallel to Norman as he slowly made his way to a waterhole some eighth of a kilometer away. After a long drowsy drink, he retraced his steps. He paused briefly at the place where he had napped, before finally disappearing over a small hill and out of view.

“That was incredible. Can we see Norman’s bedroom?” I asked as we neared the thicket. What I saw there completely changed my opinion of Norman once and for all.

The place where Norman slept was under a ceiling of branches intertwined with wispy vines that bore petite blue flowers. A large patch of soft dry earth was Norman’s mattress and in the center of it was a perfect impression of a sleeping elephant. Up near where his trunk had lain was a bone, the hipbone of another elephant.

“Oh my.” Schalk said quietly. “This must be one of Tom’s bones. Tom was another old elephant friend of Norman’s.”

On the way to his nap, Norman had visited Tom’s nearby gravesite and picked out a piece of his old friend to take with him as he napped. We stared at Norman’s outline and at Tom’s bone and thought about all we knew, and what we can’t ever know about the complexity of elephant relationships.

A wonderful old elephant indeed.

Teresa O’Kane writes about travel and adventure from her home in California and from around the world. She sailed a catamaran from California to Hawaii, trekked in the Himalayas, worked as a construction manager on a bridge project in Zambia, hiked more than 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago, and traveled to 120 countries and all seven continents. She is honored to be a member of The Explorer’s Club. Her book, Sarfari Jema, was the winner of the 2012 Indie Book Award for Best Memoir and 2013 finalist for Best Travel Book.

The House on KVR Swamy Road

March 14th, 2019

By Sivani Babu

Grand Prize Bronze Winner in the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards

We push through a sea of people and cows, the dust and smog swirling red and heavy, giving the scene around us the hazy air of a vintage photograph. A calf chews languidly on a banana as flies buzz around its head. We walk down the street as the tinny sound of temple music floats by and the aromas of everyday life assault our senses: fruits, spices, incense, the musk of oxen, diesel, smoke. Nearly two decades have passed since I last walked KVR Swamy Road, but I still remember the childhood admonitions to keep the dust down by not dragging my feet. I laugh. A drop in the bucket, I think to myself, but I make sure to pick my feet up anyway, hopping, jumping, leaping over puddles and pungent piles of cow manure.

I hold my memories close. I’ve missed this place. It was such a significant part of my childhood that it is hard to believe I have gone so long without returning. Emotions, like humming birds, flit around, constantly changing directions. I am excited to see my uncles again after all these years. I am nervous to meet their wives and children. I am curious to see how the place has changed. And I am hopeful that it hasn’t really changed at all — that the memories, some long forgotten, will still be there, waiting for me.

My parents and I, flanked by my uncles, arrive at a small wooden door. Has that always been there?

One of my uncles opens the narrow door, revealing a private alleyway that separates two buildings. Shafts of sunlight flood the space between the structures as gray water trickles through a narrow drainage canal that runs the length of the alley. I stoop down, step through the door, and slip off my shoes, the feel of cool cement on my bare feet plunging me into a memory.

~ ~ ~

Thwap, thwap, thwap, thwap. I was six years old and running across the room, trying to see how loudly I could slap my feet against the concrete floor. The sound was captivating — a novelty compared to my carpeted existence back home in California.
Outside, the heat was fierce, the sun: relentless. Rickshaws, bicycle bells, car horns, and the mooing of cows all mingled in the familiar symphony that I’d come to associate with summers in Rajahmundry, India.

Thwap, thwap, thwap.

Nimadhee!” — gently — my mom chided as I ran by, lapsing into her mother tongue, a language she seldom spoke at home.

I slowed and softened my steps for a moment — just long enough for her to return to the conversation she was having with her brothers and sisters. Then, buoyed by their raucous laughter at my back, I was off again, slapping away at full speed. I joined my cousins on the terrace, our own laughter blending with the chorus as we peered over the terrace wall and gazed down at the scene below: men on motorbikes dodging rickshaws and cyclists; women on foot balancing woven baskets atop their heads. I watched the baskets full of eggplant and mangos, squash and sapota go by.

The house on KVR Swamy Road didn’t look like a house — at least not like the houses I knew. I was a child of California’s Central Coast. Aside from the homes of my friends, which were a lot like my own, the only house I really knew was the stucco structure with the red tiled roof and fruit trees in the yard where the scent of the Pacific lingered on a westerly breeze. The floors were carpeted, the walls of my bedroom were papered with delicate purple butterflies and posters of Magic Johnson, and the only people who lived there were my parents, my siblings, and me.

But the house on KVR Swamy Road was different. It was actually three concrete, whitewashed houses bought over several years. The individual buildings were connected on the lower levels in certain places, but by the third floor — the top floor — the buildings were separate. The ground floor held my Thatha’s — my grandfather’s — print shop, and the family, immediate and extended, lived in the sixty-two rooms above, sharing one kitchen, one dining room, and a handful of squatty potties.

After marrying my mom, my dad jokingly started calling the house Kothaval Chavadi after the famous wholesale vegetable market that supplied produce to millions of people in Madras. The house was never quiet. It was always bursting with people, not just family, but also friends, employees, and business associates. No one ever knew who was supposed to be in the house and who wasn’t, so the assumption was that everyone belonged. Anybody could wander in off the street, and as long as they didn’t act shifty, they’d be served a full meal and treated like the old friend they just might be.
We were the only part of the family in the United States, so during the summer, my mom would take me and my siblings to Rajahmundry and we’d stay with family in the house that looked nothing like a house but that was undoubtedly a home.

~ ~ ~

More than fifteen years after my last childhood visit, I stand in a shaft of sunlight between the buildings and look around. The din outside the narrow door fades away. I was nine the last time I’d stood in this alley. After my grandparents died, my mom had stopped bringing us back here. Most of the doors are closed. The alley is silent. I take a few steps. I want so badly for them to take me back in time. Instead, they take me to my great aunt’s room, to a woman I’ve always called “Big Ammamma” — Big Grandma.
I remember her as a woman of stature — a woman who towered over everyone, but she no longer towers over me. She’s been hunched by age, and also, I am not nine years old anymore. My five-foot seven-inch frame means that few people in India tower over me these days. But it is more than her height that has changed. She is quieter. Her voice shakier. Her presence more delicate.

Ela unnaru?” How are you? I ask her in stilted Telegu, my words rusty from decades of disuse.

She laughs at my attempt, pulls me in and kisses my cheek, and then promptly asks me when I’m getting married.

On a solo trip to India, my dad once told his entire family that I was engaged (I wasn’t) just so he could avoid having a similar conversation. I briefly consider taking a page from his book. He’s standing behind me and I’m certain he would back my play, but my mom is standing next to me, and she would never approve.

“We’ll see,” I say, and the conversation immediately comes to a lull.

I look around the room and then out to the alley and the closed door across the way. Something feels off. And the only thing that is familiar is the scent of coconut oil in Big Ammamma’s hair.

~ ~ ~

The whirs, bangs, and whooshes of the enormous printing presses reverberated off the concrete walls. I sat with Thatha in his office as he worked, the scent of tobacco and cloves drifting from his clothes. I’d made a habit of throwing out his cigarettes when he wasn’t looking.

“You shouldn’t smoke,” I would say to him, filled with the indignance of a child.

A’unu, Amma,” — yes, Mom — he would say, smiling, his glimmering eyes framed by the thick, black rims of his glasses. He never got angry and never complained, but he didn’t quit either.

I’d been his tiny shadow all day long, splashing around as he filled barrels in the morning when the water came on for an hour, following him as he introduced me — his “granddaughter from America” — to some of the shop owners next door, sitting across from him as he taught me to play chess, and tagging along as he went down to the print shop.

Kalahasti, Thamma Rao & Sons had been in the book publishing business since 1882 and was steeped in history. Thatha and his brothers inherited the business from their father and in the 1940s, as India moved toward independence, the family had taken great risks to print and distribute contraband, pro-independence literature. As the story went, they’d printed the contraband in broad daylight and at night, they’d caught up on their normal publishing jobs. The only thing more surprising than the brazenness of the operation was that it had been successful. The British only ever became suspicious at night and their nighttime raids proved fruitless.

A history of revolution was fine and good, but at six years old, I really just wanted to play with the printing presses. And even when he should have, Thatha never really said no to me.

Work stopped as he picked me up and stood me on a stool. There was an organized box of typeset letters in front of me. I had watched the machine and the men who ran it all morning long. I knew what to do. I grabbed a handful of letters and set them into the printing press. My spoken Telegu was decent — honed out of necessity during these summer trips — but my ability to read it was nonexistent. I set complete gibberish and then, with Thatha’s help, pulled a lever to ink and print it. It didn’t matter that I had printed nonsense. I had a Cheshire cat grin on my face, and so did Thatha.

~ ~ ~

Now, as an adult, I am back in the house, still trying to get my bearings. Where was the kitchen where we’d heated water on the stove for early morning bucket baths? Where was the dining room where I’d begged to sit on the floor and eat with the adults?

“Where was the print shop and Thatha’s office?” I ask Thamma Rao Uncle, one of my mom’s five brothers.

“It is no more.”

I know what that means. The print shop was destroyed several years prior when the government demolished part of the building to widen the street.

“Is there anything left?” I ask, wondering if there might be books or a small piece of machinery that I could take back with me. I know the answer, but I am still saddened when another uncle, Dharma Rao, confirms it.

I try to hide my disappointment but am unsuccessful.

Chustanu. For you, I will look,” Dharma Rao Uncle offers.

I thank him, and I know that he will look, but I suspect there is nothing left to find.

~ ~ ~

The town had grown dark and all of the oil lamps in the house had been extinguished. We’d wiled the hours away playing cards and carom board, laughter filling the night until it was well past bed time. Thatha had set up a row of cots on the terrace for all of the kids and I climbed into mine. Blanketed by the sweet scent of jasmine and camphor, I counted shooting stars, wishing on each of them as they passed overhead until I fell asleep.

~ ~ ~

“What about the terrace?” I ask my mom, who in turn asks her brother.
I am desperate after all these years to find something that feels familiar and so many of my memories are tied to that terrace: nights under the stars, my uncles hammering a giant block of ice into small pieces to fill the cooler of bottled water and Thums Up cola that they’d bought for our visit; sewing fresh flowers into sweet-smelling, colorful garlands; flying kites in the afternoon swelter, their neon colors shimmering in the heat as the concrete scorched the soles of my bare feet.

I look hopefully at my uncle and he gives me the head nod, the one that simultaneously combines the nod for yes with the shake for no and means whatever you want it to mean. I would laugh, except that I need to know the answer.

“No. You can see where it was from the roof, but we cannot go up. It is locked.” He explains that the terrace was gone and though it is possible to see where it was, they no longer have access to that part of the house. It does not belong to them. After my grandparents died, it passed to a member of the extended family who keeps it locked and keeps people out.

I sigh and look at my hands in my lap. Eshwar Rao, my youngest uncle, stands abruptly and leaves the room. I wonder where he is going, but I sit and listen as the conversation moves on and then dies. This silence, too, is strange and unfamiliar.

Why had I thought that after nearly two decades, the memories would still be here?

When he returns to the room, Eshwar Rao Uncle has a key in his hand.

“Come with me,” he says.

I stand and follow him up a narrow staircase. As we near the top, the staircase turns and there is a drop in the ceiling.

“Watch your –” he starts to say, but he is too late.

I smack my head against the concrete, stumbling as bright golden dots swarm my vision like bumble bees. I blink a few times then reach up and rub my forehead, pleased to see my hand come away with only a dusting of chalky whitewash rather than a smear of blood. I’d never had to duck as a kid.

Eshwar Rao Uncle cringes and hisses. “Are you okay?” he asks.

I am and we keep going.

I follow him up the remainder of the stairs and then down a walkway past more closed doors. Something is nagging at me. We reach another door and I watch silently as he slips the key into the heavy metal padlock. Something is still bugging me.

We step out onto the roof.

“There,” he points. When I follow his gaze, I find a brand-new building — one I’ve never seen before.

The key is still dangling in Eshwar Rao Uncle’s hand and I finally realize what has been bothering me.

The doors.

There are no doors in my memories of the house on KVR Swamy Road. They were there, I’m sure, but no one ever closed them and so it was as if they didn’t exist. The closed doors came later — after Thatha, the last of the family’s true patriarchs, had died; after Kalahasti, Thamma Rao & Sons had fractured and splintered; after the buildings had been divided among quarreling extended family members; and after the government had demolished so much of the home to widen the road below. That had been the final blow. They’d sheared off half of the house and left the building unfinished — half-destroyed rooms open to the street, allowing the memories to escape until they were gone just like the terrace where I’d once slept under a canvas of night that smoldered with embers from millions of miles ago.

How, I wonder, could there be nothing left?

I want to cry.

I want to hug Thatha.

“Will you come to our home?”

The voice surprises me. It belongs to Dharma Rao Uncle’s oldest daughter. A teenage girl who I’ve only just met. She skipped school to spend time with me, her cousin from America, and I have welcomed her company throughout the day. While my once boisterous uncles have grown quiet with age and haven’t said much, she has filled the void created by their silence and I am grateful for that. I hadn’t noticed, but she had followed Eshwar Rao Uncle and me up to the roof, as had her parents, I realize. They all look at me expectantly.

“Of course,” I say, turning back toward the door and the walkway and the stairs. Their home is in the building next door.

“We will go this way,” my uncle says, stopping me midstride and gesturing across the alley as I turn toward him. “Like when you were small.”

I follow him across the roof.

I’ve spent the entire day looking for parts of the house that feel familiar. I’d wanted to see the places and people that had made my early stays in India as important as they were. I’d wanted to see things that reminded me of my grandfather — to linger in the life of a man whose impact on me was disproportionately larger than the amount of time I spent with him before he died. I’d wanted to gather those memories like flowers and press them between the pages of my mind — to take them with me.

But there was, it seemed, nothing to gather. Thatha was gone. When I was nine, he’d suffered a stroke while my family and I were in the air, returning from what would be our last summer visit. My grandmother had followed shortly after. The house had been irretrievably changed after that. The people, too, in so many ways. And I was no longer a dewy-eyed child. But I’d carried this place with me. I’d slept under the stars in Death Valley and remembered those nights on the terrace. I’d studied the game of chess, finding beauty in the strategy and growing into an accomplished young chess player, and remembered those early lessons. And I’d opened brand new books, breathing in the scent of ink on paper, running my fingers over gold-stamped bindings and elegant typography, and remembered my grandfather.

Maybe that was the point.

I look over at Dharma Rao Uncle standing on the roof and remember how I had used him as a human jungle gym in my youth. I smile at the memory and listen. I hear the laughter that once bounded off of the concrete walls and floors, and I smell the faint scents of jasmine and camphor, of tobacco and cloves. I slap my feet against the concrete, grinning as we near the edge of the roof. How many times had I taken this route between buildings as a child? Dozens? Hundreds? I take one quick glance down at the alley several stories below.

And then, just as I had so many times before, I leap.

Sivani Babu is the co-founder and creative director of Hidden Compass. She is an award-winning nature photographer and travel writer whose work has appeared on BBC Travel and CNN, as well as in Backpacker, Outdoor Photographer, Iron Horse Literary Review, and Expressions, the North American Nature Photography Association’s annual showcase of the best nature images. Her photos have been displayed in galleries and exhibits around the world. Sivani graduated from the University of Chicago and served as a Teach for America corps member before attending the University of Pennsylvania Law School, but her love of adventure and storytelling (and her diminished sense of self-preservation) ultimately took her away from a career as a federal public defender and sent her sailing to Antarctica, chasing storms through Tornado Alley, exploring the remote Yukon Territory in winter on crutches, and road tripping across the U.S. with her septuagenarian former high school speech and debate coach.

Grand Prize Silver Winner: The Citroën and the Pomegranate

March 5th, 2019

By Matthew Félix

Grand Prize Silver Winner in the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards

I’ve traveled extensively.  But you’d never know it from the looks of my apartment.  Between an almost obsessive insistence on traveling light—never carrying more than one backpack, which fits into any overhead bin—and a general aversion to accumulating things, I hardly ever bring back mementos from the road.

That’s what made my attraction to the pomegranates all the more peculiar.

There were several of them, in three different sizes, each in an irresistible flaming red that called to mind the poppy’s licentious crimson.  They caught my eye no sooner than I had entered my favorite shop on Istiklal Caddesi, a bustling pedestrian street that serves as Istanbul’s commercial spinal cord. As I knew from my year-long stay two decades earlier, in addition to baubles like the pomegranates, the store featured an intriguing variety of select books, fascinating old maps, and all manner of objects harkening back to the city’s rich Ottoman past.

The pomegranates, however, were the work of a contemporary artist and, even as I perused the rest of the store, again and again my gaze was drawn back to them.  Perhaps it was that striking color, catching my eye like a torero’s cape commanding the unwavering attention of a bull.  Maybe the recollection of the pomegranate’s divinely sweet nectar had set my taste buds aflame.  Or, it might have been the way the shiny enamel brought to life a fruit with such a glorious history, one reaching all the way back to antiquity. When the Greek goddess Persephone was tricked into consuming six pomegranate seeds, she was condemned to spend half of each year in the underworld.  For the Egyptians, the fruit was a potent symbol of prosperity.

Whatever it was, I wanted one.

But what was I going to do with it?

I was only two months into a six-month trip that would take me to more than a dozen countries.  How could I justify carrying around an object that was not only relatively heavy but even somewhat fragile, one that in the absence of a pile of papers to weigh down served no other purpose than to look pretty? Despite the unmistakable insistence I felt coming from somewhere deep inside, I just couldn’t convince myself it made any sense.

I left the store empty-handed.

~ ~ ~

A couple of weeks later it occurred to me that a book I’d seen in the shop on Istiklal Caddesi would make a perfect gift for one of my Turkish friends.

I headed to the store, happy for a pretext to return. The book, after all, was only half the reason I was excited, a convenient excuse to go back.  What I was even more interested in were the pomegranates.  Already, before I’d set foot in the store, they were calling to me again.  Once there, I made a beeline for them, their allure this time even stronger than the last.

Taking into my hands the impeccable rendering of the illustrious fruit, I savored the feel of its cool surface, my fingertips gliding over the smooth enamel.  I admired the lifelike form as I cradled it in my palm, enamored of its incomparable color.

As though contemplating a potential lover I couldn’t risk letting get away a second time, everything in my being—except reason—resolutely opened up to it, as if taking a cue from the blossom that crowned it.
I didn’t merely want to buy the pomegranate.

I was supposed to.

So I did.

~ ~ ~

After an inspiring, productive month, I boarded a plane for the other end of the Mediterranean, sorry to leave Istanbul behind.  I’d spent time with friends I hadn’t seen in ages. I’d relived fond memories from a distant past.  I’d made unforgettable new ones I’d carry with me far into the future.  Still, I was looking forward to finding myself in Barcelona for the start of summer.

Little could I have known that, although the beach was in plain sight of the tiny studio I’d rented atop a tower in the Barri Gòtic, I would scarcely sink my toes into the sand.  Day after day, night after night—often not finishing until four or five in the morning—I was consumed by a creative drive the likes of which I’d never experienced.  I had come to Europe with the intention of finishing the final draft of my first novel, and that proved to be my sole obsession for the entire month.  I didn’t go to the beach.  I didn’t go out.  I didn’t return to the Sagrada Familia or the Picasso museum, just a few doors down.  My refuge in the sky had 360-degree views of the city, mountains, and sea, ensuring I had all the inspiration I needed to stay glued to my desk and focused on the task at hand.

When the time came to say goodbye to the Ciutat Comtal and turn my sights towards a land of volcanoes, glaciers, and waterfalls, I was struck by a sense of missed opportunity. I had just spent a month in the heart of a neighborhood full of unique, independently-owned shops and boutiques. Even for someone with little interest in buying things, it seemed a shame not to have stepped inside a single one.  Fortunately, I still had an entire afternoon to do just that.

Strolling into a store housed in one of the area’s countless medieval buildings, cavernous edifices with thick stone walls and few, if any, windows other than those in front, I meandered over to a rack of T-shirts.  Lackadaisically flipping through one, then another, almost having to force myself to make the effort, an unexpected surge of delight shot from my hand to my head, as though I’d stuck my finger into a socket.

I loved it right away.

As iconic as baguettes and berets.  Simple yet practical.  Depending on the country, commonly referred to as two horses, ugly duckling, or flying dustbin.  Like the Fiat 500 in Italy, emblematic of not only France, but all of Europe. Indeed, if a movie took place in France in the 70s or 80s, a Citroën 2CV was guaranteed to make a cameo, if not have a starring role.

I had to have that shirt.

Fortunately, unlike my struggle with the pomegranate, this time around there was no need for debate.
It was functional. It was inexpensive. It was easy to pack.

It was mine.

~ ~ ~

Strange that after the excitement of our initial meeting, my new favorite shirt would end up forgotten in the depths of my backpack for the better part of a month.  By the time it reemerged, I had left Björk singing to the whales on her own, touched down in Paris just in time for a transit strike, and beheld the sun rising through the window of a train traversing the Alps. I had lost myself in the engineering and architectural marvel that is Venice (and had the mosquito bites to prove it), and endured a disappointing ferry ride in which all the sensory pleasures of yesteryear—the salty wind in my face, the blistering sun on my skin, the raucous cries of gulls overhead—had been sacrificed in the name of speed.  The ferry was more plane than boat, its fuselage lacking a single outdoor space for passengers to make any sort of contact with the sea.

Eventually, somehow I had also ended up on Hvar.

I hadn’t planned on it.  But neither had I planned on the challenges I faced in Rovinj. For a solid week three children pounded on the uncarpeted hardwood floors above me.  An indignant elderly woman followed who woke me up at 6:30 AM every day of her two-week stay. Meanwhile, an unannounced construction project got underway just outside my door, resulting in endless hours of shouting, banging, and drilling. This was no place to write. Or sleep. Or even think. When a critical miscalculation caused the laborers to bust a hole in my ceiling, showering the living room with plaster, I packed my bags and headed south.

Hvar was an unspoilt paradise of olive, fig, and pine trees, of roads lined with fennel and fields perfumed by lavender, of stunning limestone cliffs, quaint mountain villages, and a deep blue sea out of which other islands rose in all directions.

I rented a little stone cottage from a retired Croatian couple who lived in a home catty-corner to mine.  Our houses shared a charming courtyard that not only had an old, functioning well at its center, but was covered with containers of flowers and opened onto breathtaking vistas of the surrounding countryside.

It was perfect.  All of it.  And I was suddenly very grateful to have been forced to leave Rovinj.

~ ~ ~

One day as I walked out my front door, my host looked down at my Citroën T-shirt and reacted with even more enthusiasm than I had the day I found it.

“That was my first car!” he exclaimed, prematurely exhaling the drag he’d taken just before I stepped outside.  A quarter century my senior, he had a small but spry frame, a thick beard with specks of grey like ash from the cigarette inevitably dangling from his lips, and an optimistic twinkle in his eye.

With a mixture of pride and nostalgia, he proceeded to reminisce about the car and its eccentricities, which went well beyond the peculiar design of its exterior.  Vaguely resembling a Volkswagen beetle à la française but boxier, it had the comical distinction of headlamps that popped up in front, making it look even more like a bug than its German contemporary.

I was glad my T-shirt had made such an impression. For me growing up, the Citroën was a novel, quirky symbol of a far-off world I hoped one day to explore. For my host, it was part of a past he had lived firsthand and held very close to his heart.

~ ~ ~

After a couple of weeks in “the Mediterranean as it once was,” I again found myself packing my bags.  As I did, I was troubled for reasons that went well beyond my reluctance to leave.

During the entirety of my stay, my hosts had gone above and beyond the call of duty, making me feel much more like a friend of the family than a paying guest.  An unexpected bowl of fresh figs appeared at my door.  A delicious spaghetti dinner landed on my table. I was invited to take as much zucchini as I could eat from the garden, and I was given even more in the way of invaluable information and helpful recommendations about the island.

We had also laughed our asses off.

Given their incomparable hospitality, I wanted to give each of my new friends a token of my appreciation. But I was stumped.

He was easy. Although I would be sad to part with it so soon, clearly the T-shirt was meant to be his.
The problem was that I didn’t have anything for her. I couldn’t think of a single thing on the tiny island whose entire economy was oriented to tourists that wouldn’t be horribly cliché to give to a local.

My final night in the cottage, having spent days brainstorming but coming up empty-handed, I was finally forced to face the truth: if I didn’t have anything for her, I couldn’t give anything to him.  Not even the shirt, despite how much he had loved it.  My expression of thanks would have to be limited to words.
Then came a knock at the door.

I opened it to discover my host standing in the darkness, holding a plate of three crepes.  I may not have had a parting gift for his wife, but she had one for me.

“What kind are they?” I asked, after expressing how grateful I was for yet another thoughtful gesture.
“I’m not sure how to say it in English,” he said, stroking his beard and wracking his brain.

“It’s a big red fruit…”

The wheels in my own head began to turn.

“And it has lots of little…”

“Pomegranate!”  I exclaimed.  “Is it a pomegranate?”

“Maybe. I’m not sure,” he smiled, unfamiliar with the word. “But it grows on a tree over there.”

I had already noticed the huge pomegranate tree on the edge of the property, so I had no doubt we were talking about the same fruit.

I was stunned.

Not only had my hosts given me what would prove to be the best crepes I’d ever had in my life, they had also just handed me the last-minute answer to my conundrum.  Evidently I’d been premature in declaring it a lost cause.

The pomegranate from Istanbul. Buried even deeper in my backpack than the T-shirt had been, I’d forgotten all about it.  An object I had worked so hard to resist, but eventually had to concede feeling unquestionably compelled to buy. Now I knew why. Just like the only other souvenir I’d acquired on my travels, it wasn’t for me.

~ ~ ~

The next morning when my host removed the newspaper in which I’d wrapped memories of his first car, his face lit up as though he were reliving them all over again.  Before his wife opened her gift, I asked him to tell her, “Remember last night.”

“Remember last night?” she repeated in Croatian, looking up at me inquisitively, having no clue what my cryptic comment might mean.

No sooner had she ripped her present from the headlines than she let out a joyful cry.  Multiple waves of laughter followed, as she looked at me incredulously, like someone doubting how a magician has just pulled a rabbit from his hat.

Her disbelief—though great—was nothing compared to my own.

How was it even possible?  Each link in the peculiar chain of events was not only improbable in and of itself, but ostensibly unrelated to the others, isolated occurrences months apart in countries scattered from one end of the Mediterranean to the other.  I rarely make purchases.  Of all things, why the pomegranate, when I had already decided against it? Why had I been compelled to spend my last hours in Barcelona exploring shops I’d ignored for a month, only to immediately find a T-shirt I had to have?  What were the chances of a hole being busted in my ceiling, never mind that it would catapult me to an island 350 miles away I had no plans to visit?  There were more than 1,000 in Croatia.  Why that one?  And how had my host decided what to make, when for some reason she was drawn into her kitchen late the last night of my visit?

Most importantly of all, how could I explain the mind-boggling twist of fate in the final moments of my stay that had brought everything together on a plate of crepes?

The answer was simple.

I couldn’t.

Matthew Félix is an author, traveler, and host of the Matthew Félix On Air video podcast. His debut novel, A Voice Beyond Reason, is the story of a young Spaniard’s awakening to his intuition. His With Open Arms: Short Stories of Misadventures in Morocco has topped the Amazon Africa category, as well as the Morocco one three times.
Stories from Matthew’s new book, Porcelain Travels, won three 2019 Solas Awards, as well as Gold for Humor in the 2018 Solas Awards. Publishers Weekly noted that, “Felix returns with an offbeat yet funny collection…united by a common theme.” Porcelain Travels recounts Matthew’s unforgettable experiences in, on, and around toilets, tubs, and showers encountered on his travels.

Grand Prize Gold Winner: The Mystery of the Sahara

March 1st, 2019

By David Robinson

Grand Prize Gold Winner of the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards

In 1965, I was driven across the Sahara by a woman whose real name I never knew. I’ve been trying to find her ever since.

I was working in Nigeria at the time. In West Africa, even if you never see the actual Sahara, you are always conscious of its presence to the north. During the winter months, the desert asserts itself through the Harmatan winds that kick up dust storms and cause dry skin, hacking coughs, and chills among the populace as well as vivid sunsets. But in any season, just to see a Hausa man on the street is to feel the pull of the desert.

I learned about the Sahara through literature and history. The earliest foreigners had come to West Africa across the desert long before ships ever set Europeans on the southern shores, and I had read avidly the journals and accounts of all the early travelers. The Sahara has always acted as a conduit as well as a barrier, accommodating exchange but blocking conquest. Whereas Christianity had arrived dramatically by sea and by gun, Islam filtered silently across the desert by caravan, establishing itself through trade and intermarriage more than force of arms. The weight of the desert has always tugged against the power of the sea, and Nigeria, which fronts both, is to this day divided between ocean-borne and desert-borne influences. Much of the political tension in Nigeria can be traced to attempts to keep these opposing forces in some kind of equilibrium.

The idea of crossing the desert—the specific possibility—came to me in the Kingsway supermarket in Ibadan where, while shopping, I picked up a brochure advertising Sahara Tours. Having read so much about the Sahara, I was ready to experience the desert myself; it was time to live the literature.
At the address given on the brochure—for a Dr. E. A. Thomas—a woman opened the door a crack and quickly looked me up and down before inviting me into a simple, darkened flat. The woman turned out to be Dr. Thomas, the sole proprietor of Sahara Tours—owner, driver, guide, mechanic and medical doctor. Without apology, she made it clear she was in Nigeria only to collect enough passengers to pay for her return to the desert, the only place on earth she felt at home. Without fully realizing it, I had met a recluse, a refugee from civilization.

The specifics of the route she outlined meant little to me at that first meeting, but I was impressed that she spoke of the Sahara as a real place, not some metaphor or abstraction. She made the exotic seem familiar. She, too, was down to earth, tanned and weathered, shorts and sandals, cigarette and scotch. Not Doctor any longer but Helen. I signed up on the spot.

My notes help me reconstruct our route; Kano. Zinder. Agadez. En Guezzam. Tamanrasset. Adrar. Beni Abbas. Then Fez and finally Tangiers. Romantic places which Helen Thomas allowed me to experience. Assisted by my photographs, I can recall the changing landscape of the Sahara as it slowly unfolded around us. We saw very little of the classic rippled sand dunes that had previously been my image of the Sahara. Nor was the desert empty, as I had assumed. Instead, it was full of constantly changing variations in color and texture. Beneath the grand horizons, details stood out. Out of vastness, I discovered nuance.

We had a Land Rover with a cook/steward and two other passengers, but after the first day, Helen sensed that I embraced the desert with enthusiasm while the others were merely enduring it. She moved me up to the front seat for the entire trip so I could photograph and we could talk. Both of us, Helen as driver and I as photographer, were attuned to the subtleties of the desert much as a sailor becomes alert to the changing mood of the sea. Helen knew the desert, and the people of the desert certainly knew her. Border crossings were warm reunions without formalities. Towns welcomed us. Helen knew all the best French restaurants in the Sahara—this I had never imagined—and traveling in the desert, I put on weight. One afternoon, a Tuareg camel-man rushed us as if to protect his territory. At first just a solitary dot on the horizon, the closer he galloped toward us as straight and insistent as a bullet, the more foreboding he looked. Dressed head to toe in the distinctive dark indigo, amulets, sword and rifle flying, he had recognized Helen’s Land Rover and come to greet her. Of course. With her intervention, I photographed him, rode his camel, drank its delicious warm milk.

This and a kaleidoscope of other experiences I remember. Crimson sunsets with no shadows. Sleeping in the sand still warm from the day, without bugs or insects, a skein of stars overhead almost within reach. The dotted line of a camel caravan stretching across the horizon. Roast gazelle on a spit. January rains—the first in 213 years in the central desert—causing buildings, even whole towns, to slide into the earth whence they had come. A dozen people huddled together under a solitary tree waiting for transport. They had been there six days. The sudden shock of coming upon a French nuclear zone in the middle of the desert, with its Foreign Legion checkpost, paved roads, no stopping allowed, the sudden intrusion of dread upon reverie. Snow in the mountains over the Mediterranean and the souk of Fez where Helen helped me buy blankets for friends from a shopkeeper who served us sweet tea. Pigeon pie with its delicious sugary crust.

What my photographs don’t show, but what I remember even more vividly than the Saharan landscape, is Helen Thomas herself. As she drove, slowly she unfurled the story of her life. We discovered we were kindred spirits, and I was a good listener. My journey across the Sahara became the trace of Helen Thomas’ life.

Born in Indonesia of Dutch and Swedish parents, she was 52. At age 16, she had been sent to boarding school in Switzerland to be trained as a concert pianist. But she developed problems in her wrist and hands that required seven operations—to enable her to play professionally. Through the operations, however, she became more interested in medicine than music and enrolled in the Sorbonne in Paris to study medicine. She became a doctor, met and married a Frenchman. On their honeymoon in 1938, they drove a Model T Ford from Tangiers across the Sahara to Lagos, crossing 250 bridges south of Kano alone.

When World War Two came, she joined the French army as an ambulance driver. Her husband was killed in the war. She joined the Maquis and received the Croix de Guerre, one of the few civilians ever to receive it. She also worked for British Intelligence. She spoke seven languages. Because she looked and spoke German, she was sent behind enemy lines to Berlin. When the war ended, she had seen enough of cities and so-called civilization and appealed to the French Government to help her get away. In recognition of her service, the French created a post of Health Officer in the Sahara for her. She did research on disease and worked with the French Army to improve sanitary conditions in villages. She had lived in the desert ever since the war—21 years.

She had driven one and a half million miles in the Sahara and learned every part of it. At one point, she had spent three months without seeing a single person but at the end of that time was only 1/4 mile off course. When she blew her horn, the villagers came over the dune just ahead to greet her.

Three times she won the driving competition held every five years by the French Army. Part One was a road race, the fastest time between two points. For Part Two, competitors were blindfolded and left in a remote place with a compass but no maps and told to find their way back. Part Three was to locate a broken-down vehicle and fix it. As a result of her victories, she was exempted from the restriction of convoy travel, free to travel anywhere in the desert, alone.

However, when Independence came in 1960, the French transferred control of the Sahara to a number of separate African states, and she could no longer travel the desert freely. She needed a visa for Nigeria in order to set up operations there, so she cabled a South African friend, “Will You Marry Me?” He cabled back, “Prepared. When?” They were married but never saw each other again. Hence, her name of Thomas.

~ ~ ~

Helen Thomas died of pneumonia within weeks of her return to Nigeria after our trip. Except for the return journey with passengers she collected in Tangiers, mine was her last trip in the desert.

I no longer feel the pull of the Sahara, but I am still captivated by Helen Thomas. I am hoping one day to find her—in order to learn who she really was. My attempts have led me to the places where I might intersect with her life, trying to verify her story and my memory. My task is made difficult because I do not know her name; I don’t know who I am looking for. “Thomas” was an appellation of convenience. I never learned her maiden name, nor do I know her French married name. I am searching for a ghost.

In Paris I went to the French Army records for the Sahara, hoping to find some account of the road races. But those records were in storage and inaccessible. I hired a researcher to check records of foreign students and women at the Sorbonne. She tells me there is no medical school at the Sorbonne. In Wydner Library at Harvard, I read everything I could find of recent vintage on the Sahara. I have checked the Internet and written scholars and other Sahara travelers. I have been to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City to research South African Thomases. In 1999, I returned to Nigeria and was able to go to the hospital in Ibadan where expatriate death records are kept. By conning my way in, I was able to flip through the dusty files myself. No record. I went to the homes of long-time expatriates and historians to enquire if they had ever run across her.

No one knows the person I am looking for, since I can not tell them who she is. Those who might know her name are dying off. So, nothing yet, but I’m not finished. Maybe the French Army records will be unsealed and I can get back to Paris. And, there is still Switzerland, although I can’t be certain in which of the 32 Cantons she studied. Then there are records in Holland and Indonesia to go through, searching for a girl, a woman, a survivor.

Deserts are full of mirages, shimmering images that dissolve when one comes closer. Out of the Sahara for many years, I can still see Helen Thomas—whoever she may be—trying to satisfy myself that what I thought I knew then, I did indeed know.

David Robinson is a photographer and writer, with four photography monographs published. His writings have also been published in Travelers’ Tales Italy, The Gift of Travel, and The Adventure of Food. He lives in Sausalito, California.

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